Friday, 23 October 2015

Technology needs a health warning

This week saw the publication of a new report from The Office of National Statistics looking at children’s use of social media.  Researchers gathered data on screen use and mental wellbeing from over 20,000 children, parents and teachers.  They found a clear association between longer time on social websites and distress, anxiety and depression.  Their conclusion: heavy use of social media is as bad for children as bullying or a troubled home.

These findings echo those of the Institute for Social and Economic Research which published its research earlier this summer.  It also follows the publication of a report from the Strategic Society Centre (SSC) thinktank which called for manufacturers and online social networking sites to consider how young people are affected by their businesses – and potentially redesign their products and services accordingly.

The SSC report provocatively compared today’s technology firms with tobacco companies of the past which would not acknowledge the public health consequences of their business.  It also offered recommendations to help to improve the wellbeing of adolescents and compel technology companies to acknowledge their responsibilities.

Possible solutions include issuing national guidelines on the recommended daily amount of screen time for young people, compulsory school programmes on how social networking and mobile technologies can affect well-being and installing ‘virtual’ usage meters as default settings on social networking sites for all users under 18, so that they are made aware of how long they are spending online.

Children are so trustworthy of modern technologies that they often neglect the fact that it can cause them harm – both directly and indirectly.

According to researcher Dr Cara Booker, “Many of the most effective solutions to our major public health issues have come about when researchers, government and private industry work together. Examples include car safety, including more effective seatbelts, removal of lead from paint, discontinuation of asbestos use and milk pasteurisation. In many of these cases, however, solutions were only sought when the consequences were great and well-established.”

“The evidence regarding use of social media and wellbeing is growing and it is imperative that researchers, government and private industries work together to address the real public health consequences of poor wellbeing in adolescence becoming worse wellbeing in adulthood. This issue is not one that parents alone can tackle; it is one that requires government and private industry to raise awareness of the potential issues with prolonged use of social media for children and adolescents.”

Friday, 16 October 2015

What is television teaching our children?

For some time the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has been calling for a ban on advertisements for junk food before the watershed or order to tackle rising levels of childhood obesity.

The Chairman of the British Medical Association’s science board, Professor Sheila Hollins, has also criticised the relentless depictions of unhealthy food during children’s programming pointing out “the unconscious way in which promotion can influence children and young people’s choices.”

Despite initial scepticism from the government there seems to be increasing support for the idea.  The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, recently told the Conservative Party Conference that he would welcome CBeebies telling his “sugar crazy three-year-old daughter” that “chips are bad”.

Earlier this week the Scottish Health Secretary, Shona Robison, added her support agreeing that there is a “very strong argument” for banning pre-9pm junk food averts.

That these concerns are being taken seriously is good news; it is also an admission that television and advertising have an effect on behaviour and attitudes – particularly those of children. 

When he was Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt declined to heed our concerns about the worrying change in the material being broadcast pre-watershed and Ofcom’s failure to regulate adequately.  Indeed it was during his tenure as Culture Secretary that Ofcom’s decision not to find in breach material it described as “being at the very margin of acceptability” effectively re-defined family viewing.

Earlier this month Mr Hunt told his party’s conference that “we don’t like a nanny state except when it comes to children… children are allowed nannies and I think we’re able to be a little bit more draconian”.

It is time that the interests of our children were put before those of commercial providers – whether they be selling food or entertainment.  Our children deserve better.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Pop Stars as Sex Workers

Earlier this week singer Chrissie Hynde hit the headlines when she criticised
scantily-clad stars and branded them ‘sex workers’ for selling music by ‘bumping and grinding’ in their underwear.  She said their performances were doing ‘a great deal of damage’.

It is now completely mainstream for the videos of chart topping artists to include nudity, highly sexualised dancing, violence and references to prostitution.  This summer the video for Rihanna’s latest release, Better Have My Money, was much criticised for its fetishisation and glamorisation of weapons, torture and murder.  What is particularly disturbing about this is that the fan base of all these performers is so young.  Watching them, one could be forgiven for thinking that these videos have been produced to appeal to an adult male audience but, in reality, they are far more likely to be viewed by school children.

This pornification of our culture, created just to sell us a product, is having damaging and far-reaching consequences.  Young boys watching these videos will come believe that women are merely sex objects for their entertainment and young girls will learn that their value lies in their sex appeal and how they look.

Parents who responded to the government’s Bailey Review in 2011 cited music videos as a major concern.  The report subsequently recommended that age restrictions should be applied to music videos to prevent children buying sexually explicit videos and guide broadcasters over when to show them.  In its manifesto the Conservative party promised to “stop children's exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material and age-rating for all music videos.”

This summer a new scheme to classify music videos came into operation.  Music videos on YouTube and Vevo will now be rated by the BBFC to protect children from seeing inappropriate content.  Some of the biggest recording labels - Sony, Universal and Warner - have agreed to submit the videos they produce to the BBFC before uploading them to the sites but the American offices of these labels have not agreed to the system, meaning any artist who is signed with them won't have their videos subjected to ratings.

In practice this means that some of the most troubling music videos - even the ones that first sparked this move towards a classification system - won’t actually be affected by it.  This may be a step in the right direction but much more still needs to be done to make this truly effective.

Earlier in the year, we wrote to all the new MPs in the 2015 intake outlining our concerns and asking for their support.  We have received several supportive responses and will be meeting with some of the new MPs over the coming weeks to discuss ways in which we can work together in the future.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Social media steps up

On 24th August over a billion people used Facebook; this means that on that single day 1 in 7 people on Earth used that social network.

This week the Internet Advertising Bureau published new research showing that social media use has now overtaken entertainment as the UK’s favourite online activity, accounting for almost a fifth of the two hours and 51 minutes a day people in the UK on average spend on the web.

Social media use now accounts for almost 17% of all time spent online whilst the amount of time spent watching TV shows or YouTube videos and listening to music, has almost halved.

The shift appears to be in part driven by people spending more time on mobile devices, rather than desktops.  As a result we are increasingly seeing marketing, education and customer service functions using the medium.

How should we respond to this?  On the one hand social media use has been linked to depression and addiction but it also a positive function as a valuable source of support, community and entertainment. The impact of social media on users depends not on the technology itself but in how it is employed and experienced.

This week it emerged that a 14 year old boy who used a social media app to send a naked photograph of himself to a girl of the same age at school has had the crime of making and distributing indecent images recorded against him by police.  Although the boy was not arrested or charged his name will be stored on a police database for 10 years.

With social media use on the rise, and changing constantly, it is our responsibility to stay informed about the potential benefits and costs of this new digital age and then make deliberate decisions about the type and quantity of technology we use – and, importantly, to which we allow our children to be exposed.  Rest assured that Mediawatch-UK is committed to protecting and campaigning for family values in all media, old, new and social and we value your continued support in this important work.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Online Safety Bill moves to the next stage

Thank you for taking the time over the past week to contact a Peer about Baroness Howe’s Online Safety Bill.

In its manifesto for the recent general election, The Conservative Party promised:
“We will stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material”.

The opportunity for the Government to honour its commitment came before the House of Lords on 17th July with the second reading of Baroness Howe’s Online Safety Bill.

Many people used our campaign website to contact Peers ahead of the debate, urging them to speak in favour of the Bill.

Many Peers did attend the debate which was, by and large, very supportive of her proposals.  The Lords agreed to move the Bill forward to Committee stage, at which point the Bill will be further scrutinised and amendments will be considered.

Sadly the Government did not choose to adopt the provisions of the Bill to accomplish the aims set out in their manifesto.  However the Minister, Baroness Shields, acknowledged the “horrific problem” of the easy availability of online pornography and said that the Government would consider Lady Howe’s approach alongside other options currently under examination.

Lord Framlingham, speaking in support of the Bill, pointed out the lack of speed in action taken on the issues raised in the Bill so it is to be hoped that further time will be found in the parliamentary timetable over the coming months for a Committee Stage debate in order to keep the pressure on the Government to act quickly.

There is strong public support for measures ensure that websites with pornographic content carry out proper age-verification of users in order to protect children.  In a recent poll three-quarters of those asked agreed this should be done.

Although it is disappointing that the Government did not take the opportunity offered in the debate to adopt the Bill, it is encouraging that the debate continues to move in the right direction.  As Lady Howe said: “Each time one puts pressure on the Government, it improves the situation.”  We now look forward to a further opportunities to hold the Government to account to their manifesto promises at Committee Stage.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Have your say on online child protection

Over the past few years we have seen some real progress in our fight to protect children from harmful online material: The Government has worked with Internet Service Providers to come up with a voluntary industry agreement to protect children which being called ‘default-on’.  Broadband users now have to make an unavoidable choice as to whether they want to activate family-friendly filters.  TalkTalk and Sky have gone one step further and their filters are switched on as a default unless users ask for them to be removed. 

However the internet remains a potentially very dangerous place for children.

In its manifesto for the recent general election, The Conservative Party promised:

“We will stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online,
by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material”.

This was encouraging and yet there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech about implementing the commitment and when asked about how it would be taken forward during the Queen’s Speech debate, the Minister ignored the question.

The opportunity for the Government to honour its commitment will come before the House of Lords on 17th July 2015 with the second reading of Baroness Howe’s Online Safety Bill.

This Bill (revised and updated for the 2015/6 Parliament) would, should it become law, require a statutory approach to filtering as well as, robust age verification if a user chooses to remove adult content filters. It would also require web sites showing 18 and R18 material (that’s hardcore pornography) to people in the UK (regardless of whether the sites themselves are based in the UK) must put in place robust age-verification procedures.

If you agree that it’s time we offered children the best possible protection from harmful online content please take action.

With the debate on this bill less than a week away we would really encourage you to contact Members of the House of Lords asking them to support the Bill.   We have updated our campaign website  to make this very quick and easy to do.   Just go online and you will be given a Peer to write to, together with model letters you can just copy and paste. 

The Government must now deliver on its promise.

Despite all predictions to the contrary, the Conservative Party has won the general election with enough seats to form a majority government.  This means that the Conservatives will have the wherewithal to deliver on their manifesto promises which included:
  • “We will stop children's exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material and age-rating for all music videos.” 
  •  “We will work to ensure that search engines do not link to the worst-offending sites.”  
That these commitments were included in the Conservative Party Manifesto is because you have made it clear, through your actions and your much valued support for Mediawatch-UK, that these are important issues.  Your voice has been heard and it has been heeded.
Moving forward we must now make sure that we hold the new Conservative government to their promises and ensure that these important measures to protect our children are enacted swiftly.