House of Lords Call for Evidence on Children and the Internet
Response from the 5Rights Youth Commission
Date: 25th August 2016
- The 5Rights Youth Commission is a diverse group of 18 young people, aged 14-21 from all across Scotland, who are supported by Young Scot, the Scottish Government, and 5Rigths to raise awareness about young people’s rights in the digital world. After being launched in February 2016 by Scotland’s Minister for Children and Young People, Aileen Campbell MSP, they have now embarked on a 12-month investigation to develop recommendations for the Scottish Government on how Scotland can realise young people’s rights in the digital world. To inform their investigation, the 5Rights Youth Commission has been reaching out to experts, professionals, as well as specific groups of young people to gather evidence about their digital world from all angles. Their report on their findings and insights is due to be completed in February 2017.
Question 1: What risks and benefits does increased internet usage present to children and young people, with particular regards to;
Social development and wellbeing
- The risks of increased internet usage to social development and wellbeing include, but are not limited to:
- increased isolation, as children and young people often stay indoors and choose to interact online, rather than interacting with their peers face to face;
- encouraging dangerous and self-destructive behaviour, for example pro-anorexia/bulimia/self-harm websites, which encourage and/or glamorise very serious illnesses;
- device dependency and a fear of missing out – some 50% of teenagers have admitted feeling addicted to their devices; lack of sleep due to device dependency, which increases the risk of both mental and physical health problems; cyberbullying and harassment and the young person’s inability to “shut out” their harassers.
- However, increased internet usage among young people does bring some benefits to social development and wellbeing. These include:
- more ways to interact with people, and a new means of meeting new friends (admittedly with risks attached);
- in some cases decreased isolation as young people in minority groups such as LGBT and those with physical disabilities can connect with those who better understand what they are going through;
- resources such as AyeMind (http://ayemind.com/) which support and advise those with mental health problems and websites such as ChildLine, which offer a safe place for children and young people to get advice on a wide range of issues which may be affecting them.
Neurological, cognitive and emotional development
- The impact of increased internet use on emotional development is different for each young person and depends entirely on their experience and circumstances.
- For some, the internet is comforting, as they realise that they are not alone in their problems and can talk to others going through the same. For others, they feel that the internet gives them confidence, as they can show and express parts of themselves they may have to conceal at school or home through an anonymous web profile. Many feel the internet allows them to feel connected to the rest of the world, as it can be used both to find friendships locally (e.g. through alerting them to events in their area, location based social networking, etc.) and internationally, through public social networking sites such as Twitter and Tumblr.
- However, not every young person reports a positive experience of the web; some feel that increased internet usage is stressful, as they are expected to always be online and always be available. Many report that the pressures they face in the real world are still very close online. There is still a pressure to “fit in” in online communities; those who harass them at, for example, school or college have a powerful tool with which to continue their harassment; wishing to be left alone or disconnect from the web for a short time is often met with concern or even annoyance from their peers.
- Each and every child and young person online is being tracked by numerous technologies and unlimited companies. The use of “cookies”, a data package used to track users’ browsing activity across sites and platforms, begins to create a profile of the user, mostly without their knowledge. This, along with the data that the user has volunteered online via social media: the information they have shared, the media they have uploaded, and the items that they have ‘liked’; can all be sold to advertising companies and data brokers, to name a few. Advertising companies use these profiles to personalise online advertisements, to maximise their traffic and therefore profit. This is impactful on susceptible children and is commercial exploitation of young people. By contrast, this can also create a more personalised and better experience online. These online profiles can (and have been) be sold to future employers and educators, so online habits are increasingly effecting young people’s future chances.
- Mobile app permissions can also be a cause of concern. A magnitude of apps require location access, without it being part of the service. This data is easily exploitable and crosses a child’s online life to their real world one.
- This practice leads to many accusations of commercial exploitation as well as lack of privacy online, as tracking is constant and easy. As of yet, there are no regulations in place to prevent this.
Questions 2: Which platforms and sites are most popular among children and how do young people use them?
Many of the online services used by children are not specifically designed for children. What problems does this present?
- For children aged over 10, the most popular sites include Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, Musical.ly, YouTube, Instagram, Skype, Steam, Kik, and more. These are generally used to socialise with existing friends, as well as meet new ones, find guidance and advice (rightly or wrongly) on issues that may be affecting them, to express themselves, or just to have fun.
- Many children who are not quite old enough to know or understand how to increase privacy settings or the dangers of not doing so, may be putting themselves at risk of being the “prey” of online predators, potentially endangering themselves or others. They may also forget that what is posted online is near-impossible to fully delete, so may land themselves in trouble for problematic social media posts in later life.
- Other sites commonly used by young people are more educational, and are often recommended or required by their school, such as Edmodo, Schoology, School Things, and DuoLingo. While these do not carry the same risks as social networking sites, they may further encourage device dependency by making it harder for young people to limit time in front of the screen, as well as disadvantaging those who maybe cannot access the internet or afford phones or laptops.
Question 3: What are the technical challenges for introducing greater controls on internet usage by children?
- The main challenge lies in the determination and defiance of the young people themselves: if they truly want to be online, they will find a way around any restrictions placed on them. Children in primary school already know how to forge parental consent and “fake their age” in order to access social media sites they would otherwise be banned from, and many young people are even more able to deviate from the rules placed on them. They may access internet sites through encrypted services such as TOR, or use the “Browse Incognito” feature on their browsers in order to prevent parents or carers from tracking their internet history.
- Furthermore, limiting young people’s online use may do more harm than good. According to a Huffington post article, young people do indeed recognise that they are addicted to their devices, but feel that time limit control takes away their sense of trust and control online.
Question 5: What roles can schools play in education and supporting children in relation to the internet?
What guidance is provided about the internet to schools and teachers? Is guidance consistently adopted and are there any gaps?
- Schools play a very important role in supporting young people on the internet. The curriculum must be kept up to date, and is regularly updated every two years at least in order to keep up with the rapidly changing nature of online life. Internet safety and cyber resilience must be taught much earlier – mid to late primary school – and be covered fully and treated with utmost importance in the education system. Internet safety should include protection against predators, awareness of online dangers, etc., and must not say nor even imply that children should be avoiding the internet altogether. Cyber resilience should cover hacking, phishing, data profiling and mining, key loggers, GPS tracking, and access to personal data.
- Digital skills must be consistent, comprehensive, and at the forefront of modern education, but according to our evidence session with Education Scotland, primary school teachers feel unequipped to teach digital skills as resources are either outdated or non-existent.
Question 6: Who currently informs parents of risks?
What is the role for commercial organisations to teach e-safety to parents?
How could parents be better informed about risks?
- Parents are currently informed of risks through news, television documentaries, and their own children or children’s school. Some may also learn of online risks from websites such as the Ofcom website, ParentZone Scotland, or other online communities and blogs.
- This is rather limited as far as parents’ knowledge is concerned: documentaries and online communities may scare-monger and make parents feel unnecessarily uneasy about their child’s online life, and young people often don’t inform parents fully for fear that they will restrict their online activities.
- Parents could be better informed about risks through personalised advertisements for parents online, or perhaps a more official way of young people teaching their parents about the digital world – for example through workshops held at school or community events. This would give parents a chance to ask questions and receive perhaps a less biased or one-sided view.
Question 7: What are the challenges for media companies in providing services that take account of children? How do content providers differentiate their services for children, for example in respect of design?
- Media companies may struggle to keep track of how many young children are using their website; even if they do implement age restrictions, many children ignore them and forge parental consent and use a fake age. It is thought that 7.5 million children under the age of 13 use Facebook, where the age restriction is 13; however Facebook claims to be removing 20,000 of these children every day.
- Currently implemented in the United States is a law called COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), which forbids the collection of children’s (“children” meaning “under the age of 13 years”) data without parental consent, which may be achieved through a parent’s email or credit card number.
- COPPA is seen by many critics as only the “bare minimum” – the EU would rather raise the age of those covered to 16. Critics also point out slightly questionable parts of the law – the website says that COPPA would “provide parents access to their child’s personal information to review and/or have the information deleted”, which raises concerns about children’s right to privacy.
  Felt, Laurel J. and Robb, Michael B. Report - ‘Technology Addiction – Concern, Controversy, and Finding Balance.’ Common Sense. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/research/2016_csm_technology_addiction_executive_summary.pdf
 Report - ‘Impact of e-Discipline on Children’s Screen Time’ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/teens-feel-addicted-to-their-advices-but-say-their-parents-are-the-same-way_us_57291f31e4b016f378940715
 “Complying with COPPA: Frequently Asked Questions” https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/complying-coppa-frequently-asked-questions
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