More UK parents than ever feel children’s online use now carries more risks than benefits, according to 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% across the UK, down from 65% in 2015) – parents in Northern Ireland are as likely as the UK average to believe this (55%).

This comes as children are now more likely to see hateful content online. Half (51%) of 12-15s across the UK who go online had seen hateful content in the last year, an increase from 34% in 2016. A larger proportion of children in Northern Ireland claim to see this type of content (62%).

Parents across the UK are increasingly concerned about their child seeing content which might encourage them to harm themselves (45%, up from 39% in 2018); consistent with the proportion of parents in Northern Ireland (43%). 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%, up from 40%); and the possibility of their child being bullied via online games (39%, up from 32%). Parents in Northern Ireland echo the proportions of those concerned about these across the UK.

However, UK parents are now more likely than in 2018 to speak to their children about staying safe online (85%, up from 81%) – consistent with the proportion of parents in Northern Ireland doing so.  UK parents are also nearly twice as likely to go online themselves for support and information about keeping their children safe than a year before (21%, up from 12%) – again, consistent with the proportion of parents in Northern Ireland.

Influencers, online activism and girl gamers

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

  • The ‘Greta effect’

We have seen an increase in online social activism among children. Almost a fifth (18%, up from 12% in a year) of 12-15s across the UK 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%) of girls aged 5-15 across the UK now play games online – a big rise from 39% in 2018. The proportion of boy gamers is unchanged at 71%, 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. Children in Northern Ireland are as likely as the UK average to play games online (58%).

Social media use more fragmented

The study, released this week, 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%) – up from 43% in 2018. For the first time, it rivals Facebook (69%), Snapchat (68%) and Instagram (66%) 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 across the UK use TikTok (13%) – up from 8% 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% in 2018 – overtaking radios (22%) for the first time. This is especially true among children in Northern Ireland – 24% use smart speakers, compared to 9% using radios. UK children’s use of smart TVs also rose from 61% to 67% in 2019 – with children in Northern Ireland being more likely to use these than the UK average (77%).

Children’s viewing habits are changing radically too. Almost twice as many children watch streaming content than they did five years ago (80% in 2019 vs. 44% in 2015). In 2019, fewer children watched traditional broadcast TV than streaming content (74%), with a quarter not watching it at all. Children in Northern Ireland are as likely to watch live TV as the UK average, but higher proportions watch streamed content (88% vs 80% UK average).

But YouTube is as popular as ever among UK children, remaining children’s firm favourite for video ahead of Netflix, Amazon Prime, the BBC and ITV – with children in Northern Ireland echoing this.[4]

The age of digital independence

When it comes to going online, children are most likely to use a tablet (68%) but mobiles are becoming increasingly popular and children are now as likely to use a mobile as they are laptops (55%). Children in Northern Ireland are more likely than the UK average to use a tablet to go online (75%), but less likely to use a mobile phone (43%).

This move to mobile is being driven by older children in the UK, 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% to 50% – giving them greater digital autonomy as they prepare to move to secondary school. By the time they are 15, almost all (94%) children have one.[6]

Yih-Choung Teh, Strategy and Research Group Director at Ofcom, said: “Today’s children have never known life without the internet, but two million parents now feel the internet causes them more harm than good. 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.

A spokesperson for NSPCC Northern Ireland said: “It is sadly unsurprising that Northern Ireland parents feel the internet does more harm than good when social networks’ algorithms are designed to push even the most dangerous suicide and self-harm content at children.

“While it’s encouraging that parents are talking to their children about their media use, we must look to tech giants to protect their users and ensure they are a force for good not bad. We need an independent regulator to be introduced across the UK that will hold tech giants to account and implement tough consequences if they fail.”

Safer Internet Day will take place on February 11, 2020 with the global theme of ‘Together for a better internet’, with this year’s UK campaign entitled ‘Free to be me’. Coordinated in the UK by the UK Safer Internet Centre, the celebration calls on thousands of organisations to get involved to help promote the safe, responsible and positive use of digital technology for children and young people. #saferinternetday #freetobeme


Nadia Duncan

Author: Nadia Duncan


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