Happily the issue of online child protection has never split on party lines in Britain. As the UK changed Governments last year continuity was the dominant theme of policy.
And yet. And yet. The new regime’s engagement in the space has steadily been picking up pace. Ministers are setting about the task with such brio it is certainly starting to feel very different from what went immediately before.
Yes, Prime Minister
Prior to and during the General Election the man who is now our Prime Minister, David Cameron, father of young children that he is, spoke with obvious passion about a range of issues connected with the way young people are growing up today. The importance of the internet often featured. As good as his word, not long after the Coalition was installed Mr Cameron commissioned a review of the commercialization and sexualisation of childhood. The sub text was
What is happening to our children in the modern world? Are we happy with everything or do we need to try to sort out a few things?
Step forward Reg
The investigation was carried out by Reg Bailey. An East End boy Reg has a distinguished track record in business, having run big multinational companies. This background in commerce was important. Reg could not be easily dismissed as a muesli-eating, tree-hugging know-nothing who has still to collide with the real world.
The Bailey Review came out last Monday. It’s called Letting Children be Children. I love it.
True to the new sense of needing to move things on, the report is clear about timescales. In October of this year a Summit will be held in No. 10 Downing Street. This will give companies an opportunity to explain to the Prime Minister and others what it is they have been doing in the intervening five months to give effect to Reg’s main recommendations. 18 months from now, so about December 2012, there will be a full scale review of progress.
If 18 months seems a bit tight, remember that at least in relation to some of the internet related elements, Reg was building on recommendations made initially by Tanya Byron. Recommendations which remain unfulfilled. Byron had suggested a three year time period for implementation. That three year period ended in March so one way of thinking about Reg’s report is that it gives industry a not insignificant breathing space.
The report acknowleges it is not easy to work out exactly how we got to where we are today. But if it ever was it is definitely no longer possible to draw neat, simple lines and say with confidence this or that aspect of modern life is alone responsible for this or that good or bad social phenomenon. Cause and effect can sometimes be extremely difficult to determine even in a simple experiment in a physics lab, never mind in anything as complicated and slippery as British or any other society.
It’s the interplay between and interdependence of cultural, familial, personal and economic blocks that make up 21st century life as it is lived. The multi-layered, at times highly dynamic interactions are what shape it.
Most of us feel entirely comfortable with all or most of modern cultural life, indeed we celebrate it, but only an unusually Panglossian or myopic person could say they believed we currently had the best of all possible worlds in every single department. Excesses can happen, have happened. You either feel powerless, overwhelmed or paralysed by the complexity and sheer scale of the challenge this poses and conclude that
nothing can be done, just do your best to enjoy the ride
or working with the best available evidence and your own judgement, you can choose to act. Reg chooses action. Bravo!
What parents and children are saying
The Bailey Review initiated chunks of new research, and drew on an awful lot more that had already been published. Amongst other things Reg found that almost 90% of parents agreed that all of the diverse sources referred to, the wallpaper of children’s lives as he put it, meant children are under pressure
to grow up too quickly
Children were directly consulted through quantitative and qualitative research organized by the Children’s Commissioner for England. Many youngsters are acutely aware that advertising and promotions of different kinds are designed to part them and their parents from their hard earned cash. Children also had a sharp appreciation of how relentless marketing can create a climate which might lead rapidly to a form of bullying
If you don’t have something other young people will make fun out of you or you feel left out when everyone else is using it
The main recommendations
Though a commendably slender volume the report is a substantial piece of work which makes many detailed points addressed to a number of institutional and other players. The leading role of UKCCIS in helping to progress matters is acknowledged. Reg also neatly incorporates the work undertaken with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport by backbench MP Claire Perry.
The final report speaks to several different interests. However its principal conclusions and recommendation for the industry can be crisply stated.
All relevant businesses were urged to engage in helping to improve the lot of children and young people by:
Putting age restrictions on music videos to prevent children buying sexually explicit videos and guide broadcasters over when to show them
Covering up sexualised images on the front pages of magazines and newspapers so they are not in easy sight of children
Signing up to the British Retail Consortium’s new guidelines which checks and challenges the design, buying, display and marketing of clothes, products and services for children
Restricting outdoor adverts containing sexualised imagery where large numbers of children are likely to see them, for example near schools, nurseries and playgrounds
Giving greater weight to the views of parents in the regulation of pre-watershed TV, rather than viewers as a whole, about what is suitable for children to watch
Providing parents with one single website to make it easier to complain about any programme, advert, product or service
There was also a suggestion that the advertising industry should carry out research to determine whether or not it would be appropriate to set 16 as the age, below which everyone would be considered to be a child
Moving towards issues more specifically focused on the internet firms were asked to help by:
Making it easier for parents to block adult and age-restricted material from the internet by giving every customer a choice at the point of purchase over whether they want adult content on their home internet, laptops or smart phones.
Banning the employment of children under 16 as brand ambassadors and in peer-to-peer marketing, and improving parents’ awareness of advertising and marketing techniques aimed at children.
If companies provide content which is age restricted, whether by law or company policy, they should seek robust means of age verification as well as making it easy for parents to block underage access
Familiar but now heady stuff
A lot of this is very familiar to readers of this blog but it becomes heady stuff when it trips off the pen of a man appointed by a new Prime Minister. Already it has had an impact. On the eve of publication of the review Richard Barham of the British Retail Consortium, representing most of the UK’s largest shops, wrote a piece for Sky News in which he said
We recognise our responsibilities as retailers towards the young and vulnerable. That’s why we’re exploring potential cross-industry approaches to online age verification to stop age-restricted products reaching people who are not old enough to buy them.
Pardon me for a moment. I’m rubbing my eyes.
In addition, although placed above in the generic section of the report’s recommendations two in particular could also have profound effects online.
A single web site for complaints about any and all media? If put together and resourced properly it could become a potent force for good.
If we establish 16 as a new baseline for engagement with a range of advertisements, what does this mean for all those advertising driven companies which currently have 13 or less as their entry point?
If 16 becomes a new commercial benchmark will it propel the Office of the Information Commission to revisit the question of the age at which youngsters can hand over personal data about themselves over the internet without companies first being required to obtain verifiable parental consent?
Just like the Blitz
I’m trying to think of another area of public policy which is as thoroughly democratic as the internet. With health, education, transport, housing, employment, leisure and all the things that hang off these crucial nodal points of people’s lives, there are almost limitless opportunities for the rich and the privileged to separate themselves off from the everyday experiences and concerns of the less rich and the less privileged.
But that’s not how it is with the internet. For now there’s only one of them and all our children use it. Eton and Bethnal Green. It’s like the Blitz without the bombs. Truly we are all in this together. The political salience of child internet safety is therefore visible to all who have eyes to see.
Reg and Dave clearly understood that point.