Bishop of Worcester takes part in debate on relationship between children’s rights and internet use

“The Church of England schools’ commitment to this aim is seen in the breadth of our holistic educational vision. We seek to conceive of education as developing children’s creativity and awareness of the world around them—of course, we are not alone in that. To fit students for a life of active civic engagement, and not just to learn facts, is what education should be about.”

On 20th November 2014, Baroness Kidron led a debate in the House of Lords to take note of the impact of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on children’s and young people’s online and digital interactions. The Bishop of Worcester, the Rt Revd John Inge, took part in the debate, which was timed to mark the 25th anniversary of the Convention. The Bishop spoke about the ability of online education resources to release the talents of all children, noting the Church of England’s commitment to a holistic educational vision in its schools. He also highlighted some of the risks associtated with young people using the internet and supported calls for the government to review how the UNCRC can be applied to the context of these online and digital interactions.

WorcesterThe Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I begin by echoing the congratulations offered to the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, on an excellent maiden speech. I join her in applauding the wonderful work in this area of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, to whom I am also grateful for providing the House with an opportunity to take stock of the changes wrought over the past couple of decades by the growth of the internet and evolution of digital technologies—on this auspicious day, 25 years since the establishment of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which coincides, as she pointed out, with the beginning of the development of the internet. What a different world we live in now that the convention has come of age. It behoves us to consider the new cultural landscape in which we find ourselves, in which 81% of 12 to 15 year-olds use the internet every day.

As has been observed, the internet has the capacity for great good and great harm. Too often in our society it is characterised as either an unprecedented good or an unmitigated evil. The fact is, of course, that the internet is morally neutral. It is like water, which we need to live and in which we can drown. We just need to take care about the way in which we use it, particularly the way in which we encourage young people to use it. It behoves us to do our utmost to ensure that it is used for good and not harm by the young in our society.

The UNCRC rightly places a high value on education and says:

“Young people should be encouraged to reach the highest level of education of which they are capable”.

With this in mind, it is good that digital and online learning has become an integral part of most children’s education in this country. For teachers, aggregated resources online enable differentiated learning in unprecedented ways. While the inclusion of online learning tools as part of homework is a good thing, the unintended converse is that those without internet access are disadvantaged, as we have been reminded. I applaud the invaluable work of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, in addressing this.

Article 29 asserts that children’s education should develop each child’s,

“personality, talents and … abilities to their fullest”.

It says that it should encourage children to respect others’ human rights, and their own, and other cultures so that they might learn to live peaceably with those around them and further afield. The Church of England schools’ commitment to this aim is seen in the breadth of our holistic educational vision. We seek to conceive of education as developing children’s creativity and awareness of the world around them—of course, we are not alone in that. To fit students for a life of active civic engagement, and not just to learn facts, is what education should be about. To this end, church schools and the National Society are developing ways of teaching through digital pedagogy, something which needs a great deal of attention all around.

So much for the good; we are all aware of the dangers of the internet and some of the more horrific dangers have been alluded to during this debate. An Ofcom document, Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report, found that 83% of eight to 11 year-olds and 91% of 12 to 15 year-olds say that they are confident about how to stay safe online, while 67% of 12 to 15 year-olds say that they are confident that they can judge whether websites are truthful. As a parent of a 15 year-old and a 10 year-old, I do not think that I am alone in feeling that young people can sometimes be on the overconfident side about their ability to care for themselves. Much more education is needed in this area. It seems telling that the Ofcom report found that, on average, 12 to 15 year-olds have never met in person three in 10 of the friends listed on their main social networking site profile. Children with a social networking site profile that may be visible to people not known to them are more likely to have undertaken some kind of potentially risky behaviour online, such as adding people to their contacts whom they do not know in person or sending photos or personal details to people whom they only know online.

Three of the key risks identified by Her Majesty’s Government and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons in relation to children’s online activity are, unsurprisingly, sexual exploitation, cyberbullying and social network misuse, as well as access to inappropriate content. In my experience, I have learnt the hard way with my own children about the insidious nature of bullying through social network sites—some of it very subtle, as with all sorts of bullying. There are clearly much more dangerous aspects of internet and social media use but the question of cyberbullying is a very important one, to which attention has already been drawn.

We need to do our utmost to equip parents, teachers, social workers and youth leaders to use the internet well themselves, and to model good practice in using it in their work with children. I agree that we should not do it in a preachy fashion and applaud in this regard the work of iRights and the all-party group chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. Very clear guidelines about the use of the internet and social media should be taught and rigorously applied in all schools. I applaud the work of the taskforce about which the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, informed the House. A lot more is beginning to happen but a lot more still needs to happen. I very much welcome the Government’s commitment that, from September of this year, the national curriculum’s computing programmes of study in England will encourage children from five to 16 to learn about safe and appropriate internet use.

The Government’s £25 million campaign to raise awareness of the risks associated with the internet and promote Safer Internet Day every February are also much needed steps in the right direction.

Finally, widening access to the internet for young people is also important for the realisation of Article 13 on freedom of expression, Article 15 on freedom of association and Article 17 on access to information and mass media. According to the convention, children have the right to obtain information that is important to their health and well-being. We have a responsibility therefore to encourage mass media—radio, television, newspapers and internet content sources—to provide information that children can understand. Figures show that only 34% of 16 to 24 year-olds had used the internet to obtain information on public authorities or services within the past 12 months, and that only 29% had used the internet to download or submit official forms.

In summary, it seems that just as the internet and digital media are morally neutral—there are good aspects and bad aspects—so there are at present good and bad developments and, as a matter of urgency, we need to build on the good development. The development of online and digital interactions over the 25 years of the lifetime of the UNCRC is to be welcomed. Their potential for good and harm are enormous and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, once again for enabling us to consider such potential and such harm in this debate. I support her in asking the Minister for a review.


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