Peers back efforts to boost online age checks amid child safety fears

25 November 2021, 13:34

A child using a laptop computer
Children online research. Picture: PA

The Age Assurance (Minimum Standards) Bill received an unopposed second reading but is unlikely to become law due to a lack of Government support.

Children are being made “collateral damage” by the tech industry, ministers have been told, as peers supported proposals to boost online age checks.

Baroness Kidron issued the warning as she tabled measures requiring Ofcom to produce a code of conduct that sets out minimum standards for any age assurance system, including that privacy is preserved.

Several peers highlighted concerns that under-13s are on social media platforms, such as TikTok and Instagram, despite being under the minimum age required for signing up.

Age assurance systems can estimate or verify the age or age range of a user, and ensure they only access content that is suitable for them.

Lady Kidron’s Age Assurance (Minimum Standards) Bill received an unopposed second reading but is unlikely to become law due to a lack of Government support.

Culture minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay claimed the forthcoming Online Safety Bill will aim to ensure children are provided with “age-appropriate environments” and offered to hold further talks with the peer.

Lady Kidron, who chairs the children’s safety group the 5Rights Foundation, replied: “This is not good enough.”

Earlier, independent crossbench peer Lady Kidron said: “My work means that day in, day out I see children being made collateral damage of tech industry norms.

“During the first lockdown I was asked to visit a distraught headteacher whose pupil had received and shared a video of child sexual abuse so grotesque that I cannot describe it here.

“By the time we sat helplessly crying in the freezing playground the video had been shared across London and was making its way up north.

“It was a primary school. The children involved not even 10.

“I was with a child at the very moment it dawned on her she had been groomed. Her so-called friend for whom she had performed intimate acts had filmed and shared videos of her with a network of adults thousands of miles away.

“Her spirit shattered in front of me.”

Lady Kidron highlighted research showing accounts registered as children were being “targeted” with material depicting emaciated bodies, violent misogynistic pornography and a message saying “end it all”.

She added: “Sadly, some do. My inbox is a testimony to the grief and rage of bereaved parents who do not accept these norms that we are willing to tolerate or even justify as a cost of connectivity and innovation.

“I am adamant that we do not use age assurance to dumb down the internet, to invade privacy nor lock children out of the digital world. It is essential for their growth and participation in our connective future.

“But it is failure writ large that children are routinely exposed to material and experiences that they do not choose nor have the capacity to navigate.”

Baroness Harding of Winscombe, former chief executive of the TalkTalk Telecom Group, said evidence is mounting that the “dangers of social media on young minds is really substantial”.

The Conservative peer said: “If the companies themselves tells us that 13 is the youngest – in fact WhatsApp says 16 – that you should be using these services then I suspect that’s the bare minimum and yet we’re living in a society where it’s completely normal for the majority of children younger than 13 to be regular users of these products.”

Lady Harding, who also held positions at Sainsbury’s and Tesco, highlighted age checks on selling alcohol in shops before adding: “I would argue that age assurance tools available to social media companies are much more sophisticated than those available to retailers or pubs.”

Labour’s Lord Griffiths of Burry Port said: “There is a toxic culture of acceptance that to have a certain level of privacy and freedom online you must sacrifice our children’s innocence and subject them to harmful media.”

Crossbencher Baroness Boycott raised concerns over the focus of domination, aggression and male gratification in pornography, adding: “It also reinforces the notion that in order to be attractive to men you have to be willing.

“Indeed, you have to be so willing that not even a basic chat-up line is involved, not even a cup of coffee in order to get you into bed.

“I don’t believe we yet know the full extent of the damage that this easily accessible online pornography is doing to our youngsters in the long term as they grow into adults.”

Tory frontbencher Lord Parkinson said the Government “strongly agrees” with the aims of the Bill but would not support it.

He said: “I think we’re all in agreement that children should be protected from experiencing harm online and provided with age-appropriate environments. This will be delivered through the Government’s new online safety legislation, which is currently going through pre-legislative scrutiny.”

By Press Association

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