Freedom of Expression (Communications and Digital Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 4:29 pm ar 27 Hydref 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Londesborough Lord Londesborough Crossbench 4:29, 27 Hydref 2022

My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, and members of the committee on producing such a thorough and thought-provoking report. I refer to my interests as set out in the register and declare that I spent some 20 years building a digital information company where freedom of expression—in our case, views and analysis on Governments around the world—was our lifeblood.

That said, my focus today is online safety, particularly for the young, among whom evidence shows that mobile access to digital media has led to deeply disturbing patterns of behaviour—not just in the well-documented areas of online hate, abuse and bullying but in the unintended contributions to increasing obesity, falling levels of physical activity and, in certain areas, declining levels of academic performance. This also raises a key question: has social media led to a decline in workplace productivity? It is debatable, but many employers, like me, believe that it has.

I believe we must go further and much faster than the draft Online Safety Bill suggests in providing stronger and more effective levels of protection to children. Yes, some of these measures will cause friction, a pet hate of digital platforms; some will restrict freedom of speech; some will impact revenues and profits; and some will depress usage, which is no bad thing in my view. However, the damage to both the mental and physical health of the young is the absolute priority.

The ONS reports that 75% of our children spend three or more hours online a day at the weekend, with 22% spending more than seven hours a day. On school days, almost half spend more than three hours a day online. Allied to that, just 23% of boys and 20% of girls in this country meet the national recommended level of physical activity. One in five children starts primary school overweight or obese, rising to more than a third by the time they leave. More time online, less physical activity—what an unhealthy start to life.

As we know, anxiety and depression among both boys and girls has risen sharply over the last 20 years, as have self-harm and suicide rates. The young and vulnerable continue to have almost unfettered access to menacing websites promoting self-harm or “taking control of your life”, and this is not just reserved to the dark web. The need to protect our children is beyond question. How you do so is complex and challenging, and it ultimately requires a global set of principles for digital safety, because this is very much a multinational issue.

I will finish by touching on two further points raised in this report. First is the urgent need for age assurance and age verification technologies, as others have flagged up today, which the draft Bill should address much more forcefully. Responding to a Question in this place yesterday, the Minister suggested that we should not rush in because these technologies are developing so rapidly. With respect, I find that a defeatist excuse for inertia. We should have acted in this area five years ago. TikTok is a prime example: it has a minimum age requirement of 13, which is laughably unenforced. Ofcom reports that it is used by 42% of our eight to 12 year-olds, which is almost certainly an underestimate. The British Board of Film Classification found that a deeply disturbing 51% of 11 to 13 year-olds have accessed pornography online.

Secondly, I wholeheartedly agree with noble Lords that digital citizenship, annoying though that term is, should be a central part of the Government’s media literacy strategy, but it requires structure and funding, as indeed does the equally important related need for health education. Teaching appropriate behaviour online—focusing on civility, inclusion and respect—has become a critical life skill, not just at primary and secondary school but at university and in the workplace. Let us embark on a joined-up and properly financed strategy to address this.