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Study: Infants receiving increased digital independence

April 19, 2024

Infant school children are increasingly online and given more digital independence by parents, according to Ofcom’s annual study of children’s relationship with the media and online worlds.

Around a quarter of 5-7 year-olds (24 per cent) now own a smartphone, while three-quarters use a tablet  (76 per cent). Compared to a year ago, a higher proportion of 5-7s go online to send messages or make voice/video calls (59 per cent to 65 per cent) or to watch live-streamed content (39 per cent to 50 per cent).

Similarly, overall use of social media sites or apps among all 5-7s has increased year-on-year (30 per cent to 38 per cent), with WhatsApp (29 per cent to 37 per cent), TikTok (25 per cent to 30 per cent), Instagram (14 per cent to 22 per cent) and Discord (2 per cent to 4 per cent) seeing particular growth among this age group.

Online gaming among 5-7 year-olds has also seen a significant annual increase – 41 per cent, up from 34 per cent – with more children of this age playing shooter games than ever before (15 per cent, up from 10 per cent).

The research comes as Ofcom prepares to consult in the coming weeks on a comprehensive set of proposals to ensure children are better protected online. Additionally, Ofcom has announced an additional area of focus for child safety, building on the robust measures set out in our draft illegal harms Codes of Practice. Specifically, the media regulator is planning an additional consultation later this year on how automated tools, including AI, can be used to proactively detect illegal content and content most harmful to children – including previously undetected child sexual abuse material.

Solo on social

While around two in five parents of 5-7 year-olds (42 per cent) say they use social media sites and apps together with their child, a third (32 per cent) report that their child uses social media independently.

Compared to last year, parents of these younger children are more likely to say they would allow their child to have a profile on social media services before they had reached the minimum age required (30 per cent, up from 25 per cent).

It follows that more children of this age now have their own personal profiles on YouTube or YouTube Kids (48 per cent, from 39 per cent), WhatsApp (11 per cent, from 7 per cent) and Instagram (9 per cent, from 5 per cent) than a year ago.

Talking and learning about online safety

Three-quarters of parents of children aged 5-7 who go online say they have talked to their child about staying safe online (76 per cent), and over half do so at least every few weeks (56 per cent). Parents of older children who go online (those aged 8-17) are more likely to have ever had online safety conversations with their child (over 90 per cent of parents of children in each age band).

The research suggests a disconnect between older children’s exposure to potentially harmful content online, and what they share with their parents about their online experiences. A third (32 per cent) of 8-17s say they have seen something worrying or nasty online in the last 12 months, but only 20 per cent of parents of this age group report their child telling them they had seen something online that scared or upset them in the same time frame.

Notably, all girls aged 8-17 are more likely than boys of the same age to experience nasty or hurtful interactions online, both via text or messaging apps (20 per cent vs 14 per cent) and social media (18 per cent vs 13 per cent).

Over nine in ten children aged 8-17 who go online (93 per cent) can recall having had at least one lesson about online safety at school – of which three-quarters (76 per cent) said it was useful to them. This rises to 97 per cent among the 30 per cent of children who had regular online safety lessons.

From sensory to the sensationalist – top online behavioural trends revealed

Ofcom’s research studies – including the 10th annual qualitative Children’s Media Lives report – reveal a number of other behavioural trends. These include:

Passive use of social media: Children aged 8-17 who use social media are significantly more likely to do so passively by ‘liking’ or ‘following’ other accounts (44 per cent), rather than being active users who share, comment, or post content (28 per cent). Participants in the qualitive study who did share content they created themselves, tended to do so strategically – for example, by only sharing posts temporarily on their stories, or among a select, smaller circle of friends on private social media accounts.

Stimulating, speedy, split-screen content: Stimulating, shortform videos with fast-paced choppy edits, featuring loud, dramatic, and exaggerated personas, continued to capture the attention of children in our qualitive study. Split-screen – and now triple-screen videos in one case – remain a feature of their viewing diet. Ofcom also observed several children using TikTok’s ‘fast-forward’ feature to race through videos at double speed.

Girls favour ‘soothing’ sensory videos: In contrast, there has been a rise in the number of qualitative study participants – specifically girls – watching autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos which offer tactile sensory stimulation at a much slower pace. These include interpersonal ‘point of view’ videos where a content creator appears to whisper directly to the viewer, role-play a friend, or stroke their hair. The children say they watch these videos to relax, or to help them go to sleep, but at least one said they were staying up late watching one after another.

Real versus fake: Older teens are finding it harder to distinguish the real from the fake online. Children aged 16-17 years old are less confident in their ability to distinguish the real from the fake online than they were last year (75 per cent vs 82 per cent).

Categories: Articles, Consumer Behaviour, OTT, Research, Social Media

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