12th December 2022

Online Communities: Annual roundup

2022 has been a monumental year for children’s safety online. The Government’s landmark Online Safety Bill was re-drafted following Committee scrutiny; the Bill has recently returned to the House to complete its final stages in the Commons and the Lords.

This year, the Children’s Commissioner has tirelessly championed young voices on online safety to Ministers, Parliament, policymakers and tech firms. The Commissioner completed a Government commission on girls’ safety in online spaces. The CCo has also published new analysis on underage access to social media, and has quantified children’s exposure to harmful content on these platforms.

Here is a look back on the Children’s Commissioner’s work to protect children online in 2022.

The Children’s Commissioner’s role in online safety

Today’s young generation live their lives seamlessly online and offline, digital technologies are now a fundamental aspect of play, learning and connection for all children. The Children’s Commissioner has made it her mission to guarantee a safe online world which protects and nurtures childhood.

The Commissioner is glad that the Online Safety Bill is poised to enter the Statute Book and that she has been granted a statutory role in overseeing Ofcom’s Codes of Practice under the regime.

Young voices on online safety

The Commissioner and her team have spoken extensively to children, young people and parents this year to understand the impacts of unsafe digital spaces on their lives. Children tell us that online harms are wide-ranging and felt deeply.

One 13-year-old girl spoke about the impact of social media on body image:

On social media people also only share perfect pictures which can make young children and teenagers feel insecure about their life and bodies” – Girl, 13, living in a children’s home.

An 11-year-old boy wrote that parents are ill-equipped to manage screentime:

“[Children] are spending too much time on games online and their [sic] parents are doing nothing about it” – Boy, 11, living with foster carers.

Another boy in care, also 11, told the Children’s Commissioner that digital technologies were impacting children’s health – both physical and mental:

On technology affects your physical and mental health in so many ways” – Boy, 11, living with foster carers.

On the most troubling end, children speak about the heavy influence of social media on young people’s behaviour. One child in care wrote about how harmful content and abusive behaviour online may encourage self-harm or suicide:

The amount of negative things on social media and people getting told to kill themselves daily and not enough support for mental health” – Girl, 14, living with foster carers.

A 16-year-old boy wrote about the pressure exerted by pornography to perpetrate sexual harassment and abuse against female peers:

I was pressured into watching horrific pornography. As a boy myself, I was unable to understand the everyday struggle of the girls in my class, then one day I did. I was ostracised for not cat calling girls in the class, watching pornography, or sexually assaulting any girls” Boy, 16.

Government commission on online sexual harassment

Following the Everyone’s Invited movement, in order to address the epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse in schools, the Children’s Commissioner was formally commissioned by Government to explore girls’ safety in online spaces.

This commission concluded in March 2022, following extensive engagement with children, teenagers, young adults and parents, as well as with representatives of tech firms and adult sites.

The full findings and formal recommendations to Government, including implications for the Online Safety Bill, can be read here.

Survey of children and parents

In September, Children’s Commissioner published analysis of children’s exposure to harmful content on social networking platforms, and their experience of reporting concerning posts to these sites. The results reveal the great extent of underage social media use, and the woefully poor responses of tech firms to children’s reports.

The Commissioner also asked children and parents about their attitudes to online safety measures, including age assurance for which there was overwhelming support.

Full analysis of the survey results can be read here.

The Online Safety Bill

As the Online Safety Bill has made its way through Parliament, the Children’s Commissioner has continued to play a central role in reflecting children’s voices. In May she appeared at the Public Bill Committee, alongside Barnardo’s and NSPCC, to represent children’s rights in the legislation.

The Commissioner is glad that the Online Safety Bill has returned to the Commons for Report Stage and that it is due to complete its journey through the Lords early in the New Year. She welcomes strengthened protections to children through amendments announced by Government in November.

The Government intends to enshrine the Children’s Commissioner as a statutory consultee to Ofcom, overseeing the Codes of Practice which will be integral to the online safety regime. This is a powerful opportunity to ensure that children’s voices and experiences are truly embedded in online safety regulation, and the Commissioner looks forward to working closely with Ofcom in coming years.

A look ahead to 2023

The Children’s Commissioner will continue to champion children’s voices to Parliament as the Online Safety Bill moves through both Houses. This includes use of the Commissioner’s statutory data collection powers to conduct new research on the serious impacts of pornography on children.

While the Online Safety Bill represents a landmark moment to enshrine children’s rights to safety in digital spaces, the Children’s Commissioner is conscious that the work will not end here. She will continue to listen closely to children and parents in order to reflect their experiences to those in power; whether that be Ministers, Parliamentarians, policymakers or tech-firm executives.