Byron review - gathering evidence

Tanya Byron, leading the government's independent review on the potential risks to children from exp

New phenomena often bring new anxieties and video games are no exception. They are frequently blamed for a raft of social ills, while the benefits they can provide go unreported.

Video games and the internet now offer a range of opportunities unheard of in previous generations. They are entertaining - with new ways of playing now appealing to wider audiences; they are educational - enabling children to engage in innovative learning; and they provide an important social mechanism by allowing gamers to build friendships and establish global communities.

However, new technologies have brought new risks and new worries for parents and those involved in the welfare of children and young people, particularly in an online environment where game playing can be less controlled.

That is why I agreed to carry out the government's independent review, in my role as a clinical psychologist and a mother of two children. We need to help parents to understand the risks associated with children using these new technologies and make sure that they have the tools and information to be able to manage and minimise those risks, without detracting from the benefits that they can offer.

Tanya Byron

Rapid changes in technology mean long term solutions may be difficult, but these are the technologies that our children are using and will continue to use as they grow into the next workforce and the next thinking generation. So, this generation needs to be able to understand and balance the opportunities they offer against any risks of harm.

But what are the risks? This review will analyse the current evidence on the risks to children's safety and well-being of exposure to potentially harmful or inappropriate material in video games. It will also assess the effectiveness and adequacy of existing measures that help prevent children from being exposed to such material - by looking at, for example, the age classification system that applies to video games; parental control mechanisms on games consoles and the educational material available. I will be asking the video games industry and regulators what measures they are taking at the moment and what more might be done to ensure children and young people are protected.

Of course, it could be said that this is all based on the assumption that content in video games has the potential to cause harm or affect the well-being of our children, and this is one aspect I will be looking at in my review. Historically, there has been a huge amount of research looking at media effects on behaviour. However, the evidence remains contradictory and ethical implications mean that there are inherent difficulties in doing research in this area and in identifying causality.

State intervention

Given these limitations, how far should parental or state intervention go? This is a difficult question to answer. But the well-being of children is at the heart of this review and it is with this in mind that we have to face this challenge. There will always be some young people who are more vulnerable than others and some who will take more risks and yet be less equipped to deal with the consequences - children I have spent years working with.

I do not expect this review to be about draconian measures or wrapping our children up in cotton wool. Children need to learn how to handle risks as part of growing up. However, we need to be realistic and support children to manage the risks they face as they develop. This review is about taking a step back and looking proportionately at the issues, so we don't deny children the pleasures and opportunities new technologies can provide.

Part of this is about ensuring that parents are supported, and feel equipped to help their children navigate this technology safely, but it is also about pulling together the shared responsibility we have - as parents, society, government and industry - to protect our children and young people from harm. I am engaging with everyone who has a role in this, by asking them to share their views.

Call for evidence

My "call for evidence" closed on 30 November and I am now considering the responses, but this is just part of my consultation - my Children and Young People's call for evidence closes on 17 December, and I am holding a number of workshops, focus groups and meetings with gamers, children and young people, parents' groups, academics and the video game industry, who are all engaging with the process and offering their own potential solutions.

I will be publishing my report and recommendations in spring 2008. For more information about the review and to tell me your views go to: http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/byronreview

Classroom games

In August 2005, Futurelab, the not-for-profit organisation aiming to integrate innovative technologies into education, launched a year-long study called Teaching with Games to test the use of three computer games: The Sims, Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 and Knights of Honor in classrooms throughout the UK. These games, often known as "god games", induce players to use critical thinking skills to effect changes within the realm of the game.

The study was designed to offer a broad overview of teachers' and students' use of and attitudes towards commercial off-the-shelf computer games in schools. Key messages from the researchers were that there is still a generational divide between teachers and students in respect of computer games play, with 72 per cent of teachers never playing games outside school, in comparison with 82 per cent of children reporting that they played games at least once a fortnight.

Overall, the research suggested that the majority of teachers and students are open to the idea of using games in formal curricular contexts and that computer games are viewed as motivating to students. However, 37 per cent of teachers and 22 per cent of students think that computer games should not be used in the classroom.

Teachers and students have similar perceptions about the advantages and disadvantages of using games. Both groups believe that game play improves computer skills and general problem-solving abilities. However, teachers are more likely to believe that students can gain subject knowledge from computer games than children - 62 per cent compared to 24 per cent - while more children believe games improve social skills - 24 per cent compared to 17 per cent of teachers.

Finally, the research suggests that the main barriers perceived by teachers to the use of games are not those of the curriculum or of assessment, but the technical issues that may need to be overcome.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007