Bishop of Chelmsford says digital world needs children’s best interests at heart

On 7th November 2017, the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Best, ‘That this House takes note of the Report from the Communications Committee, Growing up with the internet.’ The Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, who serves on the Communications Committee, spoke in the debate. His speech is below, and was also reported in the Telegraph and Mail newspapers.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, it is a great joy to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I support the amendments she is pioneering through the House. They are extremely important. It is also a great honour, and a great education, to serve on the Select ​Committee on Communications. As other members of it have said, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for the admirable and skilful way he led us through this. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, as our new chair.

So much in this report is critical to the sort of world we want to live in, the well-being of our nation, our public life and particularly our children. In his opening speech the noble Lord, Lord Best, outlined disturbingly well the challenges and dangers. Although I welcome the initial responses we have heard from the Government, much more still needs to be done to join all this up and make sure the needs of the child are put at the centre. Among the many important recommendations we offer, I draw attention to just two, because they are important in themselves and illustrate the larger, central point of our report—that government must take up the challenge to ensure that all those who work in the digital world work together to support the needs of children in an integrated and overarching response.

Let me tell your Lordships a couple of stories. When my eldest son was about 11 or 12 years old he came home from school one day and told us that he was the only boy in his class who did not have a mobile phone. We said to him, “Don’t be so stupid, of course you’re not the only boy in your class who doesn’t have a mobile phone”. We then chatted with a few parents at the school gate over the next couple of days and discovered that actually he was the only boy in his class who did not have a mobile phone. So what did we do? We went out and bought him a mobile phone. It was the right thing to do. We did not want him to feel left out or disadvantaged in a changing world. But my eldest son is now 27 years old. This was a long time ago. That mobile phone we bought him could only really make calls or texts.

Now, there is the advent of smartphones and tablets. When I was a boy, if I wanted to find out stuff, I had to get on my bike and cycle to the library. Now, I carry the whole library and so much more besides in my pocket, like the rest of your Lordships, and refer to it from time to time if the debate loses interest. Just about every child in our country and across the world has access to all the advantages of this technology and all the terrible snares. If you do not have one you are seriously disadvantaged, which is another issue in itself.

Quite simply, the longer this inquiry went on, the clearer it became to me that it is simply no good for Facebook and others to shrug their shoulders and say that they are just a platform upon which others stand and that they cannot take responsibility for content and its consequences. If they wished—or if we made them—they could be a ticket inspector of that platform, offering proper control and management of content in all the various ways our report outlines, such as the right to be forgotten, age verification, the removal of upsetting content, time out and so on. The technology is there, but they will not use it unless pressed.

Let me tell your Lordships another story. When I was about 15 years old I had a Saturday job in a wood-yard. The men who worked there often left their sleazy and by today’s standards I suppose fairly mild magazines lying around. When I was alone in the canteen, ​and if I thought nobody could see me, I looked at those magazines. I am not particularly proud to tell your Lordships that and I publicly repent of it in the House of Lords—I am a bishop after all. Admitting this will not look very good on my Facebook page, but I was a normal 15 year-old boy and I expect most normal 15 year-old boys would have done the same thing. But now it should be of huge moral concern to our nation that those images and so much more and so much worse besides are available in the pocket of every 15 year-old boy. There is extremely disturbing evidence from organisations such as the National Council for Women telling us how the persistent and pervasive viewing of pornography can lead to acceptance of all sorts of violence and unhealthy notions about sex and relationships, and men having extremely warped and degrading attitudes to women, the likes of which—if I can say this in this Chamber, this week—affect all walks of life. I could go on.

The digital age brings astonishing freedom and opportunity. It gives access to each other and to information that previous ages could never have envisaged. But to inhabit this age well our report calls for sustained leadership from government at the very highest levels, an ambitious programme of digital literacy and, most important of all, a commitment to child-centred design, protecting them from danger and harm while enabling them not just to be safe but to thrive online.

Furthermore, I also learned during this inquiry about the potentially damaging impact not just of some of the content, but of the very fact of viewing the tablet itself, and how overuse, particularly with very small children, can affect cognitive development. Because the technology is so new it is hard to know, on all levels, what the longer-term impact might be, but this is an area where more research is urgently needed. It further illustrates that, although we are indeed growing up in the digital age, we lack maturity in the way we are governing, regulating and responding to this development. It is too fragmented.

The digital age can be an age of cultural, intellectual and even moral prosperity, but enlightened legislation based on sound and child-centred research is needed to lift it from the mire and misery it is also creating. This will require great determination from the Government, but perhaps the first step is to acknowledge that self-regulation does not work. Commercial interest always outflanks care of the child. This must change, and the Government must take a lead. It is often said of government that its first responsibility is to protect citizens. We should now ask our Government to protect our children.