Children spend half their free time online. The digital world is where they access news and information, where they play games, develop a sense of their own identity, and where they keep in touch with friends and family.
As one young person told me:
“Social media has helped me more than my own family. I wouldn’t be in a happy relationship without social media. I wouldn’t have half of my friends without social media” Non-binary, 17, The Big Ask.
Yet, very few platforms are designed with children’s best interests and welfare in mind. Children are treated as highly profitable commodities, with algorithms carefully tailored to maximise their attention and their value to advertisers.
Throughout my time as Children’s Commissioner, I have been campaigning for a strong Online Safety Bill which holds tech firms accountable for harm committed on their platforms. You can read more about my recommendations for the Online Safety Bill here.
I have also been pushing eight of the largest social networking platforms to take action now, ahead of online safety regulation, to protect children from harm and abuse. This includes tightening age assurance and reporting policies, and re-designing features to prioritise child safety over user engagement and profit.
To understand more about children’s digital lives, earlier this year I commissioned a survey exploring children’s exposure to harmful content online. My team and I believe it is the first of its kind; an addition to the ever-growing body of evidence demonstrating the urgent need for regulation of the online world.
The survey found that boys are more likely to access harmful content, including material depicting diet restriction and self-harm. Worryingly, children with Free School Meal eligibility were also more likely to see every type of harmful content surveyed.
I will publish the findings in full in September. The sheer scale of children’s exposure to sexually explicit, violent or self-harm content shows how vital it is for online safety legislation to be passed. It is time for tech firms to put children’s safety and wellbeing ahead of profit, and to be held fully accountable for this.