Study: Parents’ rising concern over kids online

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More UK parents than ever feel children’s online use now carries more risks than benefits, according to comms regulator Ofcom’s latest annual study of children’s media and online lives.

Parents and carers are becoming more likely to trust their children with greater digital independence at a younger age. But far fewer believe the benefits of their child being online outweigh the risks than five years ago (55 per cent, down from 65 per cent in 2015). And around two million parents now feel the internet does their children more harm than good.

This comes as children are now more likely to see hateful content online. Half (51 per cent) of 12-15s who go online had seen hateful content in the last year, an increase from 34 per cent in 2016.

Parents are increasingly concerned about their child seeing content which might encourage them to harm themselves (45 per cent, up from 39 per cent in 2018). Similarly, two gaming-related problems are increasingly concerning parents: the pressure on their child to make in-game purchases of things like ‘loot boxes’, a virtual item containing rewards (47 per cent, up from 40 per cent); and the possibility of their child being bullied via online games (39 per cent, up from 32 per cent).

However, parents are now more likely than in 2018 to speak to their children about staying safe online (85 per cent, up from 81 per cent). They are also nearly twice as likely to go online themselves for support and information about keeping their children safe than a year before (21 per cent, up from 12 per cent).

Looking at what today’s children are doing online, Ofcom has uncovered three notable online trends over the last year.

  • 18 per cent of 12-15 year olds use social media to support causes and organisations by sharing or commenting on posts, up from 12 per cent in 2018.The ‘Greta effect’. We have seen an increase in online social activism among children. Almost a fifth (18 per cent, up from 12 per cent in a year) of 12-15s use social media to express support for causes and organisations – potentially environmental, political or charitable – by sharing or commenting on posts. One in 10 signed petitions on social media.
  • Rise of the ‘vlogger next door’. While high-profile YouTube stars remain popular, children are now increasingly drawn to influencers like them. These people, known as ‘micro’ or ‘nano’ influencers, often have fewer followers. They might be local to a child’s area or share a niche interest. Children described these influencers as more relatable and directly engaged with their followers, while others described being able to imitate their content on their own social media channels.
  • Girl gamers on the increase. Almost half (48 per cent) of girls aged 5-15 now play games online – a big rise from 39 per cent in 2018. The proportion of boy gamers is unchanged at 71 per cent, but boys spend twice as long playing online each week as girls (14 hours 36 minutes vs. 7 hours 30 minutes). Boys cited FIFA, Crew 2, Destiny 2 and Fortnite as examples of the games they play.

Social media use more fragmented

The proportion of 12-15 year olds who have a social media profile on Facebook (69 per cent), Snapchat (68 per cent), Instagram (66 per cent), WhatsApp (62 per cent), YouTube (47 per cent), Pinterest (13 per cent), TikTok (13 per cent) and Twitch (5 per cent).

The study finds that older children are using a wider range of social media platforms than ever before. WhatsApp in particular has grown in popularity among 12-15 year-olds since last year, despite having a minimum age limit of 16.

WhatsApp is now used by almost two thirds of older children (62 per cent) – up from 43 per cent in 2018. For the first time, it rivals Facebook (69 per cent), Snapchat (68 per cent) and Instagram (66 per cent) as one of the top social media platforms for older children.

Newer platforms such as TikTok – which enables users to create 15-second lip-sync, comedy and talent videos – are also becoming more popular. Around one in seven older children use TikTok (13 per cent) – up from 8 per cent in 2018. One in 20 older children use Twitch – the live streaming platform for gamers.

Alexa – how many children use smart speakers?

Children are using more connected devices than ever before. Among these, smart speakers saw the biggest increase in use over the last year. More than a quarter of children now use them – up from 15 per cent in 2018 – overtaking radios (22 per cent) for the first time. Children’s use of smart TVs also rose from 61 per cent to 67 per cent. More than a quarter of children now use smart speakers – up from 15 per cent in 2018 – overtaking radios (22 per cent) for the first time. Children’s use of smart TVs also rose from 61 per cent to 67 per cent.

Children’s viewing habits are changing radically too. Almost twice as many children watch streaming content than they did five years ago (80 per cent in 2019 vs. 44 per cent in 2015). In 2019, fewer children watched traditional broadcast TV than streaming content (74 per cent), with a quarter not watching it at all.

But YouTube is as popular as ever, remaining children’s firm favourite for video ahead of Netflix, Amazon Prime, the BBC and ITV.

The age of digital independence

50 per cent of 10 year-olds own a smartphone in 2019, up from 30 per cent in 2015.When it comes to going online, children are most likely to use a tablet (68 per cent) but mobiles are becoming increasingly popular and children are now as likely to use a mobile as they are laptops (55 per cent).

This move to mobile is being driven by older children, for whom 10 is becoming the age of digital independence. Between age nine and 10, the proportion of children who own a smartphone doubles from 23 per cent to 50 per cent – giving them greater digital autonomy as they prepare to move to secondary school. By the time they are 15, almost all (94 per cent) children have one.

“Today’s children have never known life without the internet, but two million parents now feel the Internet causes them more harm than good,” notes Yih-Choung Teh, Strategy and Research Group Director at Ofcom. “So it’s encouraging that parents, carers and teachers are now having more conversations than ever before with children about online safety. Education and stronger regulation will also help children to embrace their digital independence, while protecting them from the risks.”


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