Ofcom study highlights threats to child online safety

A third of kids aged between 8 and 17 with a social media profile signed up with a false date of birth, according to new report by UK comms regulator Ofcom, seemingly offered up as a framing to the Online Safety Bill.

Ofcom has put out a report which collates three pieces of research – the first was carried out by Yonder Consulting and asserts that 47% of children aged 8 to 15 with a social media profile have a user age of 16+, while 32% of children aged 8 to 17 have a user age of 18+. In the younger 8 to 12s age group the study looked at, it is estimated 39% have a user age profile of a 16+ year old, while 23% have a user age of 18+.

This matters because some platforms unlock features like direct messaging and the ability to see adult content once it registers a user has turned 18. The second study in the research Ofcom has lumped together to make its point is from Revealing Reality, and looks at the risk factors that may make made children more vulnerable to online harm.

These include a child’s pre-existing vulnerabilities such as any special educational needs, offline circumstances such as bullying or peer pressure, design features of platforms which either encouraged and enabled children to build large networks of people, and exposure to ‘personally relevant, targeted, or peer-produced content, and material that was appealing as it was perceived as a solution to a problem or insecurity.’

Overall the point seems to be that various factors can impact whether or not a child may be more or less vulnerable to ‘online harms’, with said impacts ranging from ‘minimal transient emotional upset’ to more severe psychological and physical harm such as acts of self-harm.

The third study the report summarises is commissioned jointly by Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office and looks at children’s and parents’ attitudes towards ‘age assurance’ – by which it seems to mean various techniques for platforms to make sure children are not exposed to adult materials or contact.

The findings included the fact that parents were concerned with keeping their children safe online, and that both parents and children ‘leaned towards “hard identifiers”, such as passports, for traditionally age-restricted activities like gambling or accessing pornography.’ Meanwhile some parents apparently thought that minimum age restrictions for social media and games were ‘quite arbitrary.’

Together it’s a bit of a muddle of studies all roughly orbiting the same theme of children’s safety when it comes to using the internet. The purpose of which is obvious since it moves immediately on to discuss the Online Safety Bill, through which Ofcom is going to ‘assess and publish findings about the risks to children of harmful content they may encounter online’ and will put in place ‘proportionate systems and processes to mitigate and manage these risks.’

The report reads as a smorgasbord of evidence broadly painting the picture than there are some irregularities when it comes to how children are using the internet, with one of the more obvious assertions being that children are getting round many of social media’s presumably quite easy to get around measures that are supposed to mean they don’t get exposed to things like pornography or contact with strangers. It seems to be offering this as a way of shoring up the proposed Online Safety Bill, without providing too much commentary on the side.

As we discussed recently, you’re not going to find many people that disagree with the idea that children should be protected from things they shouldn’t see on any medium, but the question is will the measures proposed effectively combat it and are they sufficiently targeted to that specific point, or does the mission creep to censorship on the behalf of adults, which is an entirely different proposition – and one many would rail against.

We don’t know what the Online Safety Bill will look like exactly in its final form, so its hard to say how much it looks like overreach until then, but there seems to be some back and forth between the frequently oscillating series of UK politicians who’s purview it is to push this legislation through and MPs who take an interest generally, with some highlighting the importance that free speech does not take a hit in the process of any new regulation.


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One comment

  1. Avatar Andrew 11/10/2022 @ 2:18 pm

    Well, congrats to the writer for giving a balanced view.

    The problem is that the average parent, whilst duly concerned about what their young children may be exposed to on the Internet, do NOT have the time or inclination to make due diligence on what the draft text of this law is about; nor how that text has been architected and influenced.

    One thing is sure though: that special interests are at the forefront of getting this law passed. It has never been properly explained by this Government to the public, other than parlaying the “safety” buzzword, a humbug word, legacy of the Lockdowns.

    That, in my view, is justifiable cause for suspicion in light of the way other Government policies (e.g. Climate Change, Net Zero, Covid Lockdowns, Uncontrolled Imigration,War with Russia) are being non-transparently brought to the Statute book; only for the public to learn, belatedly, that they are populated with clauses that are far beyond any reasonable scope and dangerously extend the powers and coercion of the State over the public at large.

    In short, will or will not, this legislation be proportionate, effective; easy; and inexpensive to operate ? Will it be in the interests of not only children, but also and primarily, the parents who are legally responsible for them ?

    It is long overdue that parents and parenting was given full support as the rightful and sole legitimate locus for supervising, advising and controlling the access of their under 18 offspring to Internet content. Why is the State needed any where near this subject ?

    The alternative will be more State overreach and the intrusive and controversial takeover of this area of the information society by unrepresentative special interests.

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