Bishop of Durham raises impact on children of digital advertising

On 25th April 2019 the House of Lords debated a Motion from Lord Gilbert of Panteg, “That this House takes note of the Report from the Communications Committee UK advertising in a digital age (1st Report, HL Paper 116).” The Bishop of Durham, Rt Revd Paul Butler, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, and the committee for the report, which made for fascinating reading. My friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford sends his apologies for not being in his place today; he is elsewhere in the world with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, and so asked me to address one or two matters. I take complete responsibility for what I say, although he said that I must talk about self-regulation.

We all love digital; at least, most of us do. We love its possibilities. I do not go anywhere without my phone, frankly: I keep looking at it and I get bombarded with adverts through it. It was not planned but, yesterday evening, as it happens, I watched a lecture from a two-day conference for theologians being held in Durham this week, entitled “Missio Dei in a digital age”. Maggi Dawn, a British theologian based at Yale University, tracked the history of the impact of digital on Christian mission. She said this about how we handle digital:

“We need to recognise both the glorious possibilities of digital and its profound brokenness”.

Her point was that although digital is wonderful, with glorious possibilities we must use to the full, we must not fail to recognise its profound brokenness because it is infected by human beings, who make all kinds of mistakes in their use of things.

In that setting, I want to pick up on three specific issues in the report. The first concerns self-regulation. I was gladdened to see the report identify the need for regulation, but I am concerned about the manner in which this regulation is recommended. As seen in the tremendous influence advertising has on children’s health and well-being, self-regulation is not a sufficient means by which to moderate online spheres. With the introduction of the Gambling Act in 2007, gambling advertising has inundated the public sphere and, more recently, social media. Most notable in the digital age is the new manner in which advertising is done: nudges, banners, social media profiles, clickbait and so on, as has already been mentioned.

A rising number of British children—at least 55,000 currently—are already problem gamblers. Some 66% of young people who gamble follow gambling companies on a social media platform. The special inquiry my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans successfully campaigned for will look at the social and economic impacts of the gambling industry. I hope that will look at these areas of concern, which many noble Lords are also concerned about. What encouragement and support will the Government give that inquiry? Although I commend the Committee of Advertising Practice’s new penalties, introduced earlier this month to combat online gambling advertising to children, the reality is that little power has been given to implement such regulation.

Similar concerns may be had about online junk food advertising. Today, over the road in Church House, the Children’s Future Food Inquiry report was launched. It highlights some of these concerns. Research published late last year found that every hour kids spend online increases the chance of them buying junk food by a fifth. There is a lack of regulation around social media advertising, from Instagram influencers promoting diuretics to TikTok recently introducing flash ads for food-ordering apps.

Paragraph 86 from the committee’s report states:

“Many advertisers and content providers flout the rule that online advertising must clearly be labelled as advertising. There is currently no standard way to label advertising, and so even those who comply with the rule are inconsistent in how they do so”.

Self-regulation guidelines are available but the little influence given to official regulators is leaving young children vulnerable. The report’s suggestion is to label advertised content with a universal, mandatory logo. I see potential for this premise for general advertising; however, I expect it would have no impact on advertising aimed at children. We should instead prioritise providing more regulatory guidance to legislators. Clearly, we will have opportunities to debate this through the online harms White Paper—but the damage is happening now, so we must act swiftly.

I pick up on the point from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, about the capacity and capability of the House and Parliament’s procedures. I have a son who works entirely in the digital world. He is a sports journalist and does nothing that is not digital. He regularly reminds me: “Dad, you haven’t a clue”. He is not putting me down but being blunt when he says: “I have been raised in this digital world. I am inside it, day in and day out. You just don’t get it and your generation will struggle to”.

I move to education—as highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, in his introductory speech—and particularly paragraphs 111 to 114. I commend the report on its suggested review of the Government’s unnecessary division between arts and STEM education at an early age. Students of science should be encouraged toward creative education in the interest of a broad and rich education. Where possible, arts and sciences should be blended during schooling years to empower students to be flexible, especially given the considerable speed at which society is changing within their developing years. This is important for advertising but also for a wider range of careers. The divide between science and arts no longer serves us well.

Finally, I make some points on immigration and paragraph 217. I hope the Minister will assure us that this section of the report will be fed into our debates on the immigration White Paper, which proposes a £30,000 threshold that some have already raised major questions about. It strikes me that the digital world is another area where we want international talent, and we must create a new immigration policy that works to attract people on the basis of their skills, expertise and ability rather than an arbitrary income threshold.

I commend this report, that which has followed it and all the work done. I trust that my contribution adds to our debate.


Lord Gordon of Strathblane (Lab)…I agree with the right reverend Prelate in his paean of praise for the internet—I think it is wonderful. But he was also quite right to point out its potential tremendous pitfalls as well. It is a question of trying to get the best out of the internet while avoiding the problems….

Lord Bilimoria (CB)…Paid-for search is the largest category of online advertising, accounting for 50% of UK online advertising spend in 2017, compared with 36% for display, 13% for classifieds and 1% for other formats. The right reverend Prelate, who is not in his place, showed his mobile phone. Mobile accounts for an increasing share of the online advertising market, with smartphone expenditure accounting for 45% of total online spending in 2017, compared with 37% just one year before in 2016. Social media, mainly Facebook and YouTube, accounts for an increasing share of internet display advertising. In 2017, 57% of online display advertising was on social media, compared with 49% in 2016. These growth rates are exponential. Is the industry keeping up with it?..

The Lord Bishop of Durham: For the record, I have been in my seat the entire time. So has my smartphone, which I have not looked at while the noble Lord has been speaking.

Lord Bilimoria: I apologise to the right reverend Prelate.

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab): …We must agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and others who laud the democratic and communautaire aspects of the internet—what it makes possible for us. At the same time, I fear that the negative aspects—the underbelly or darknet—is becoming disproportionately controlling of the general aspects of this technology…

Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con, Minister)…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, spoke about damage to children and advertising products with a high fat, sugar or salt content. Our launch of a consultation on advertising these particular products online, as well as on TV, is just one example. Notwithstanding strict UK regulation, children still see a great many advertisements for products high in fat, salt or sugar, including through innovative techniques online, as touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I agree with the right reverend Prelate that it is right that we look again at the issue…

…As my noble friend Lord Gilbert noted from his committee’s report, the so-called JICWEBS is doing valuable work to improve the measurability of online advertising to help combat advertising fraud and misplacement. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, also spoke about that point. I would like to say more about this area but, before I do, I note the comment made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham about the comments of his son. A possible riposte is that he is perhaps feeding him fake news about his inability to grasp technology, but maybe we should put that to one side…

…I want to be clear that the Government recognise that advertising is a people-based business which benefits from the most creative minds. Ensuring access to talent is critical to our competitive advantage. EU citizens currently working in advertising in the UK can stay. The EU settlement scheme is intended to be quick, easy to use and free. The scheme opened fully at the end of March and is, I understand, working smoothly. Our immigration White Paper, which the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Durham alluded to, set out our vision for the future immigration system: a single, skills-based immigration system which will allow businesses to bring in the best talent from anywhere in the world. We are currently undertaking a year-long process of engagement with a wide range of stakeholders, including the creative sector, before finalising the detail…

Lord Gilbert of Panteg (Con)..In our latest inquiry, we recommended a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament, working with a body which looks forward to issues that are going to arise in the future so that policymakers are not constantly reacting to the latest newspaper headlines but are creating public policy which addresses future problems. To some extent, that answers the right reverend Prelate’s concerns about the balance between statutory and non-statutory regulation. If you are looking forward and identifying issues, you can come up with a menu of options for assuring societal values are asserted and dealt with. This may often mean that less regulation is appropriate…

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