Jim Shannon – 2022 Speech on the Online Safety Bill

The speech made by Jim Shannon, the DUP MP for Strangford, in the House of Commons on 5 December 2022.

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I thank Members who have spoken thus far for their comments. I commend the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for what she referred to in relation to eating disorders. At this time, we are very aware of that pertinent issue: the impact that social media has—the social pressure and the peer pressure—on those who feel they are too fat when they are not, or that they are carrying weight when they are not. That is part of what the Bill tries to address. I thank the Minister for his very constructive comments—he is always constructive—and for laying out where we are. Some of us perhaps have concerns that the Bill does not go far enough. I know I am one of them and maybe Minister, you might be of the same mind yourself—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)


Jim Shannon

The Minister might be of the same mind himself.

Through speaking in these debates, my office has seen an increase in correspondence from parents who are thankful that these difficult issues are being talked about. The world is changing and progressing, and if we are going to live in a world where we want to protect our children and our grandchildren—I have six grandchildren —and all other grandchildren who are involved in social media, the least we can do is make sure they are safe.

I commend the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) and others, including the hon. Member for Watford (Dean Russell), who have spoken about Zach’s law. We are all greatly impressed that we have that in the Bill through constructive lobbying. New clause 28, which the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) referred to, relates to advocacy for young people. That is an interesting idea, but I feel that advocacy should be for the parents first and not necessarily young people.

Ahead of the debate, I was in contact with the Royal College of Psychiatrists. It published a report entitled “Technology use and the mental health of children and young people”—new clause 16 is related to that—which was an overview of research into the use of screen time and social media by children and young teenagers. It has been concluded that excessive use of phones and social media by a young person is detrimental to their development and mental health—as we all know and as Members have spoken about—and furthermore that online abuse and bullying has become more prevalent because of that. The right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) referred to those who are susceptible to online harm. We meet them every day, and parents tell me that our concerns are real.

A recent report by NHS Digital found that one in eight 11 to 16-year-olds reported that they had been bullied online. When parents contact me, they say that bulling online is a key issue for them, and the statistics come from those who choose to be honest and talk about it. Although the Government’s role is to create a Bill that enables protection for our children, there is also an incredible role for schools, which can address bullying. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and I talked about some of the young people we know at school who have been bullied online. Schools have stepped in and stopped that, encouraging and protecting children, and they can play that role as well.

We have all read of the story of Molly Russell, who was only 14 years old when she took her life. Nobody in this House or outside it could not have been moved by her story. Her father stated that he strongly believed that the images, videos and information that she was able to access through Instagram played a crucial part in her life being cut short. The Bill must complete its passage and focus on strengthening protections online for children. Ultimately, the responsibility is on large social media companies to ensure that harmful information is removed, but the Bill puts the onus on us to hold social media firms to account and to ensure that they do so.

Harmful and dangerous content for children comes in many forms—namely, online abuse and exposure to self-harm and suicidal images. In addition, any inappropriate or sexual content has the potential to put children and young people at severe risk. The Bill is set to put provisions in place to protect victims in the sharing of nude or intimate photos. That is increasingly important for young people, who are potentially being groomed online and do not understand the full extent of what they are doing and the risks that come with that. Amendments have been tabled to ensure that, should such cases of photo sharing go to court, provisions are in place to ensure complete anonymity for the victims—for example, through video links in court, and so on.

I commend the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), who is not in her place, for her hard work in bringing forward new clause 48. Northern Ireland, along with England and Wales, will benefit from new clause 53, and I welcome the ability to hand down sentences of between six months and potentially five years.

Almost a quarter of girls who have taken a naked image have had their image sent to someone else online without their permission. Girls face very distinct and increased risks on social media, with more than four in five online grooming crimes targeting girls, and 97% of child abuse material featuring the sexual abuse of girls—wow, we really need to do something to protect our children and to give parents hope. There needs to be increased emphasis and focus on making children’s use of the internet safer by design. Once established, all platforms and services need to have the capacity and capability to respond to emerging patterns of sexual abuse, which often stem from photo sharing.

The Minister referred to terrorism and how terrorism can be promoted online. I intervened on him to mention the glorification of IRA terrorism and how that encourages further acts of terrorism and people who are susceptible to be involved. I am quite encouraged by the Minister’s response, and I think that we need to take a significant step. Some in Northern Ireland, for instance, try to rewrite history and use the glorification of terrorism for that purpose. We would like to see strengthening of measures to ensure that those involved in those acts across Northern Ireland are controlled.

In conclusion, there are many aspects of the Bill that I can speak in support of in relation to the benefits of securing digital protections for those on social media. This is, of course, about protecting not just children, but all of us from the dangers of social media. I have chosen to speak on these issues as they are often raised by constituents. There are serious matters regarding the glorification and encouragement of self-harm that the Bill needs to address. We have heard stories tonight that are difficult to listen to, because they are true stories from people we know, and we have heard horror stories about intimate photo sharing online. I hope that action on those issues, along with the many others that the Government are addressing, will be embedded in the Bill with the intent to finally ensure that we have regulations and protection for all people, especially our children—I think of my children and grandchildren, and like everybody else, my constituents.