The air they breathe

LeslieGriffiths.jpgLeslie Griffiths on a new report from the Lords Communications Committee on young people and the Internet

Today’s debate on the Lords Communications Committee report, Growing up with the Internet couldn’t be timelier. Not only is the House currently debating the Data Protection Bill – the very legislation that is anticipated in the report – but my colleague Doreen Massey has also facilitated a two day conference on the mental health of children.

Both the report and the conference have listened carefully to the voices of children and this is to be applauded. We can only hope that those parts of the Bill which address their needs will draw on some of the wisdom found in these separate and discrete exercises. The case for joined up thinking couldn’t be stronger.

The imminent application of the General Data Protection Regime (GDPR) will impact on children’s digital rights and activities. It is vital therefore, that implementation actually strengthens the safety and avoids watering down existing protections. I hope the cross-party, NSPCC-backed amendment proposed yesterday by Baroness Kidron for an age-appropriate design of online services – including default privacy setting, clear and accessible terms and conditions, and robust reporting procedures – will be factored into the Bill as it moves forward.

The Communication Committee report highlights how this is the first generation born into the world of the Internet. 59% of young people have had their first social media accounts at age 12 or under – despite guidelines for sites (including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram) which all state that a child must be 13 years old.

It is the air our children breathe. They are natives of this brave new world and the report insists on recognition of this fact. The Internet must be considered an integral and fundamental aspect of the school curriculum. It should no longer be taught in specific IT classes, but a part of the Personal, Social, Health, Economics (PSHE) programme. A fourth pillar of a basic education alongside Reading, (w)Riting and (a)Rithmetic. (I long to find another word centred on the letter “r”!)

This conclusion is key to the whole report, and it is worth emphasising the concerns expressed. School budgets are under great pressure and, again and again, PSHE programmes are coming under threat – an easy target for “saving” money. Ministers have said PSHE should be compulsory but the reality is quite different. The prevalence of the Internet is obvious and its benefits widely recognised.

We must however, be in the best position possible to take advantage of that potential. A survey undertaken this year for the British Chamber of Commerce revealed significant shortages of digital skills and calls for this deficiency to be addressed. The potential for harm on the Internet is equally obvious and more attention needs to be given to the impact of over-exposure on young people’s mental health.

The addition of ‘Digital’ to the title of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is indicative of the fact that the Internet and technology now inhabit the same space; and indeed contribute to all of these activities. But adding a word isn’t enough.

The government needs to take decisive action to develop a safe and robust online environment for children, whilst at the same time better integrating digital skills into our education and workforce. If we continue to treat the Internet and digital innovation as an ‘add on’, we risk exacerbating divisions in society. As Professor Robin Mansell puts it, “The challenge isn’t only whether digital communication … is explorative or liberating, inclusive or exclusive, it is to keep in mind that … human agency still matters. It isn’t digital technology that makes society but human beings in their institutional settings who make the world.”

Lord Leslie Griffiths of Burry Port is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords

Published 7th November 2017

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