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Children’s relationship with online world – new Ofcom report

Regulator’s annual study finds that more than three-quarters (76%) of kids aged 5-7 use a tablet; almost a quarter (24%) own a smartphone. 

Children’s Media Lives is a longitudinal study of the behaviours, experiences and attitudes of UK children aged 8-17 relating to the media and online worlds. It is now in its tenth year. 

boy in gray shirt using black laptop computer

Photo by Thomas Park

The children who take part are from a range of backgrounds, and the aim has been to return to the same children each year, replacing them only when they turn 18 or have to leave the study for some other reason. 

As a result, the annual report provides useful insights into the way children use and respond to the fast-changing online landscape. That landscape is very different from when the study began: as the report says, 2014 was the ‘year of the selfie’, the ‘ice bucket challenge’ and the ‘selfie that broke Twitter’ (taken at that year’s Academy Awards ceremony). To the children and young people taking part in this year’s study – many of whom weren’t even born in 2014 – that all feels like ancient history. 

So, what does this year’s report show? 

Online activity is growing. Compared to last year, more children aged 5-7 go online to send messages or make voice and video calls (rise from 59% to 65%) or to watch live-streamed content (39% to 50%). Use of social media sites and apps such as WhatsApp and TikTok has also increased in the same age group (30% to 38%). 

Online gaming in this age group is up from 34% to 41%, the report noting that ‘shooter’ games are up from 10% to 15%. 

Less than half of the parents surveyed (42%) said they accompanied their child in using social media sites and apps; just less than a third (32%) said their child used such social media sites and apps without supervision. Increasingly, parents would allow their child to join social media services before they reached the minimum age required (a rise from 25% to 30%). 

Even so, more than three-quarters (76%) of parents of children aged 5-7 have talked to their child about staying safe online, and more than half (56%) do so regularly – at least every few weeks. More than 90% of parents of children aged 8-17 had had similar conversations. 

One concern is how much children and young people tell their parents about negative experiences online. Almost a third (32%) of those aged 8-17 said they’d seen something worrying or nasty online in the past 12 months; but just one fifth (20%) of parents to those in the same age group reported their child telling them about seeing something like this online. 

A high proportion (93%) of those aged 8-17 could recall at least one school lesson about online safety. More than three-quarters (76%) found this useful – but the figure was 97% for those children who received such safety lessons on a regular basis.  

Girls aged 8-17 were much more likely than boys of the same age to experience nasty or hurtful interactions online. For text and messaging apps, the difference was 20% for girls, 14% for boys; for social media the split was 18% versus 13%. 

The report goes into a great deal more depth about the findings, which will inform Ofcom’s ongoing work to implement the new Online Safety Act. Next month, the regulator will launch a consultation on its draft Children’s Safety Code of Practice. Later in the year, it hopes to consult on the use of automated detection (including AI) to mitigate risks to children online.

In related news:

Device bank in Coventry to tackle digital exclusion 

Can data centres have a net positive climate impact?

University of Liverpool’s digital twin

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