Posted: Sat 16th Mar 2024

Encountering violent online content starts at primary school, Ofcom research finds

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales

Children are encountering violent content online as early as primary school, viewing it as an unavoidable aspect of their online experience, new research commissioned by Ofcom reveals.

This exposure, primarily through social media, video-sharing, and messaging platforms, often occurs before children reach these services’ minimum age requirements.

Violent gaming content, verbal discrimination, and videos of local fights are common encounters.

For some, sharing this material is tied to a desire to gain online status or avoid being labelled as ‘different.’

Though less frequent, some children reported seeing extreme violence, including gang-related content.

However, none had ventured into the dark web for such material.

The study highlights teenage boys as the most likely to share and seek out violent content, motivated by peer acceptance and the lure of online popularity.

Younger children, aged 10-14, feel pressured to view this content and find it amusing, fearing social isolation otherwise.

Older children seem more desensitized but are less inclined to share violent content.

Unintentional encounters with violent material are common, stemming from group chats, stranger posts, or recommender algorithms.

This leads to feelings of distress, anxiety, and guilt among children, exacerbated by their reluctance to report such content due to mistrust in the process.

In addition to violence, the research delves into children’s experiences with content related to suicide, self-harm, and eating disorders.

Exposure to such content is frequent and, for some, leads to the discovery of harmful behaviours or exacerbates existing issues.

There’s ambiguity over what constitutes ‘recovery’ content, with some being tagged as such to bypass content moderation, despite being harmful.

Cyberbullying is another area of concern, facilitated by direct messaging and comments.

Anonymity and the ease of creating fake accounts contribute to the problem, with children expressing frustration over the reporting process’s ineffectiveness and complexity.

The findings call for tech companies to take responsibility for child safety online, especially with the upcoming Online Safety Act. This legislation requires platforms to implement measures preventing children from encountering harmful content, including violent material and cyberbullying.

Ofcom’s forthcoming Protection of Children Codes of Practice will outline steps tech firms should take to protect children online.

The consultation will involve industry, child protection organizations, and children themselves to ensure effective child safety measures are in place.

Moreover, Ofcom plans to consult on a three-year strategy for promoting media literacy, emphasizing the role of informed decision-making and risk reduction in children’s online engagement.

Gill Whitehead, Ofcom’s Online Safety Group Director, emphasises the need for tech firms to act now to prepare for their child protection duties under the new online safety laws, aiming for an age-appropriate and safer online environment for children.

She said: “Children should not feel that seriously harmful content – including material depicting violence or promoting self-injury – is an inevitable or unavoidable part of their lives online. Today’s research sends a powerful message to tech firms that now is the time to act so they’re ready to meet their child protection duties under new online safety laws. Later this spring, we’ll consult on how we expect the industry to make sure that children can enjoy an age-appropriate, safer online experience.”

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