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Ofcom: Proposed measures to improve kids’ online safety

May 8, 2024

Ofcom, the UK media regulator, has published a package of proposed measures that social media and other online services must take to improve children’s safety when they’re online.

Ofcom has explained some of the main measures and the difference it expects them to make and has set out proposed steps online services would need to take to keep kids safer online, as part of their duties under the Online Safety Act.

Under the Act social media apps, search and other online services must prevent children from encountering the most harmful content relating to suicide, self-harm, eating disorders and pornography. They must also minimise children’s exposure to other serious harms, including violent, hateful or abusive material, bullying content, and content promoting dangerous challenges.

What will companies have to do to protect children online?

Firstly, online services must establish whether children are likely to access their site – or part of it. And secondly, if children are likely to access it, the company must carry out a further assessment to identify the risks their service poses to children, including the risk that come from the design of their services, their functionalities and algorithms. They then need to introduce various safety measures to mitigate these risks.

Ofcom’s consultation proposes more than 40 safety measures that services would need to take – all aimed at making sure children enjoy safer screen time when they are online. These include:

  • Robust age checks – Ofcom’s draft Codes expect services to know which of their users are children in order to keep protect them from harmful content. In practice, this means that all services which don’t ban harmful content should introduce highly effective age-checks to prevent children from accessing the entire site or app, or age-restricting parts of it for adults-only access.
  • Safer algorithms – under Ofcom’s proposals, any service that has systems that recommend personalised content to users and is at a high risk of harmful content must design their algorithms to filter out the most harmful content from children’s feeds, and downrank other harmful content. Children must also be able to provide negative feedback so the algorithm can learn what content they don’t want to see.
  • Effective moderation – all services, like social media apps and search services, must have content moderation systems and processes to take quick action on harmful content and large search services should use a ‘safe search’ setting for children, which can’t be turned off and must filter out the most harmful content. Other broader measures require clear policies from services on what kind of content is allowed, how content is prioritised for review, and for content moderation teams to be well-resourced and trained.

What difference will these measures make?

Ofcom believe these measures will improve children’s online experiences in a number of ways. For example:

  • Children will not normally be able to access pornography.
  • Children will be protected from seeing, and being recommended, potentially harmful content.
  • Children will not be added to group chats without their consent.
  • It will be easier for children to complain when they see harmful content, and they can be more confident that their complaints will be acted on.

Ofcom’s consultation follows proposals already published for how children should be protected from illegal content and activity such as grooming, child sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as how children should be prevented from accessing pornographic content.

Next steps

Ofcom’s consultation is open until July 17th. The regulator expects to finalise its proposals and publish its final statement and documents in spring 2025.

Responding to the news, Andy Lulham, COO at VerifyMy, commented: “Ofcom’s comments reflect the growing risks children face when going online. Many young people encounter unsafe, age-restricted (18+) or illegal content within 10 minutes of accessing the internet. This is why it’s so important that the industry leads in the proactive enforcement of robust technology that stops kids from viewing age-restricted materials and removes illegal content in real-time. The time to act is now and collaboration is key. Safety tech providers are here to help platforms effectively implement these technologies to ensure compliance and help safeguard children and society online”.

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