Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Mass murder in Myanmar; intensive care beds full of unvaccinated Covid-19 patients; insurrection at the US Capitol; teenagers sent down rabbit holes of content promoting self-harm, eating disorders and suicide …
Given the human cost of the internet, as listed by the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, it must be wondered whether the techies in Silicon Valley realised they were creating a digital Pandora’s Box, unleashing horrors upon us. So much for “Do No Evil”.
Trying to bring some accountability and regulation to the online world and tech giants, a fortnight ago the Government unveiled the latest draft of the bill, some five years after it was originally proposed.
As with most government measures these days, it comes with a side-order of Carlsberg-type hyperbole: instead of “probably the best lager in the world”, the bill will ensure “the UK is the safest place in the world to be online”.
Much of the impetus for the bill is the safety of children. Evidence given to the Joint Committee is indeed troubling, particularly in connection with the ease that children can access extreme pornography. Age Verification, a Conservative manifesto commitment back in 2015, is long overdue, even if like parental locks, SafeSearch and privacy settings, it will probably be easily cracked by determined youngsters.
Almost absent from any debate over the harm to children caused by social media access is the role of parents and schools. While initiatives from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection subsidiary of the National Crime Agency are welcome, specific online safety education for children aged 4 to 7 raises some questions – mostly about the carelessness of their carers.
Mumsnet, perhaps the only organisation guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of all politicians, offers parents practical advice about online safety. Concerns over impact of the online world on children has been likened to earlier generations’ worries about books, the theatre, TV and computer games.
But how helpful is it to compare children’s terrestrial television, where content and ads have always been highly regulated, with, for example, the algorithm-heavy YouTube Kids? Last summer, Google announced it would restrict the targeting of advertisements to minors. Better late than never.
Over the past quarter of a century, our lives have been transformed by the tech revolution. With being digitally off-grid almost unthinkable, it must be increasingly difficult for parents to resist a pastel-coloured tablet for their toddlers, especially if, along with a shatterproof casing and Peppa Pig, it promises educational apps.
Ofcom’s Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report 2020/21 says that most children aged 3-4 had been online (82 per cent), with nine in ten of them using video sharing platforms such as TikTok. Almost half of these pre-schoolers had their own tablet, but about one third used a laptop or mobile phone to access the online world.
Despite 99 per cent of parents stating they had some form of supervision in place when their child was online, 41 per cent did not directly supervise by, for example, sitting beside them.
With three in ten parents saying it is hard to control their pre-schooler’s screen time, it is unsurprising that in the battle over tech, those with older children – especially gaming-addicted teens – wave the white flag. Although the majority are aware of the various parental controls, only around a third use them, according to Ofcom: perhaps they are the same third who allow their children aged 5-12 to use social media, despite most tech companies’ minimum age requirement of 13.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has reported that “80 per cent of 6- to 12-year-olds have experienced some kind of harmful content online”, while last September the NSPCC suggest that the online sexual abuse of children surged by 78 per cent in four years. This of course coincided with lockdown, which increased our dependency on tech.
Anyone born after 1996 is a “digital native”, growing up with the internet. The advent of the iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010) revolutionised access to the digital universe, that dizzying kaleidoscope of search engines, messaging services and social media, of family Zoom sessions, Uber-booking, ISIS executions, puppy videos and hardcore porn. Exponential access since the naughts has coincided with a rise in suicide, self-harm and mental health issues among teenagers, especially girls who are prey to what has been dubbed ‘Snapchat dysphoria’.
“Self-regulation of online services has failed” concluded the Joint Committee in December, highlighting the tech giants’ business model based on data harvesting and microtargeted advertising. But perhaps all of us adult users of Meta, Google, Twitter and the other digital platforms have colluded in that failure?
“We don’t give it a second’s thought when we buckle our seat belts to protect ourselves when driving. Given all the risks online, it’s only sensible we ensure similar basic protections for the digital age,” said Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, introducing the bill.
Not only are children’s seat belts buckled but they must use child seats in the rear of a vehicle until they are 12 or 135cm tall. “Keep out of reach of children” is found on most household cleaning products: why not on devices offering online access?
The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma ends with some of Silicon Valley’s leaders making clear how fanatical they are about keeping their children off-line or, at minimum, severely limiting their screen-time. As drug-dealers say, never get high on your own supply.
Last month Katharine Birbalsingh, Social Mobility Commissioner and headteacher, told the Irish Times that parents should get their children off phones. “They should not be having a smart phone until they are 16 … and do not give them unsupervised access to the internet.” In 2018, France banned mobile phones, tablets and smart watches for students under 15 in schools.
The Online Safety Bill is a welcome start but given the huge range of issues it covers, from online fraud to hate speech, via fake news, cyber flashing, ‘Zach’s law’, disinformation and trolling, is it too unwieldy? Doesn’t Ofcom have enough to do without being given oversight?
Many are uneasy about the impact the proposed bill will have on freedom of expression – a subject which surely deserves entirely separate consideration and legislation. As Elon Musk tweeted last week, “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy.”
In the context of online harm we need the Tesla chief to get tweeting – about parents and carers outsourcing their responsibilities for their children’s safety to the state.