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Children are left to learn about the internet on their own with parents vainly hoping that they will benefit from its opportunities while avoiding its pitfalls. This is the conclusion of Growing Up Digital, a year-long study into how well children are prepared to engage with the internet, published today by Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England.

The time children spend online is continuing to increase – 3-4 year olds’ online use increased from 6 hours 48 minutes to 8 hours 18 minutes a week over the last year and 12-15 year olds spend over 20 hours a week online. Growing Up Digital looked at how to equip children with the knowledge they need to engage creatively and positively with the internet, and not be overwhelmed by it.

Led by an expert advisory group, Growing Up Digital found that when children use social media they sign up to impenetrable terms and conditions that they could never be expected to understand. These harbour hidden clauses which waive their right to privacy and allow the content they post to be sold.

The terms and conditions of Instagram, which is used by 56% of 12-15 year olds and 43% of 8-11 year olds who have a social media account were tested with a group of teenagers. Younger ones were unable to read more than half of the 17-pages of text, which run to 5,000 words, and none understood fully what the terms and conditions committed them to. An expert in privacy law on the Growing Up Digital panel simplified, demystified and condensed the terms and conditions so that they were comprehensible to teenagers, leaving many of them shocked by what they had unwittingly signed up to.

The Growing Up Digital study also looked into children’s experiences of reporting concerns on social media sites and asking for content about them to be removed. Although much of the behaviour children complain about online – bullying, sexting, harassment – is illegal, a number of studies have found that children often do not know how to report concerns and when they do, are dissatisfied with any action taken. One study found that almost a third of 15 year olds admit to having sent a naked photo of themselves at least once, and over a third of 12-15 year olds have seen hateful content directed at a particular group of people in the last year. The number of children counselled by Childline about online bullying has doubled over the last 5 years.

Growing Up Digital recommends that every child in the country studies digital citizenship to build online resilience, learn about their rights and responsibilities online and prepare them for their digital lives. It recommends that social media companies rewrite their terms and conditions so that children understand and can make informed decisions about them. And it asks the Government to implement legislation similar to that being introduced by the EU to protect children’s privacy and data online. It also recommends giving children more power to tackle social media companies by appointing a digital ombudsman to mediate between them over the removal of content.

Baroness Beeban Kidron, 5Rights Founder and a member of the Growing Up Digital steering group said:

“The Children’s Commissioner has made an important intervention on a subject that is a central concern of parents, carers, teachers and young people themselves.  She has identified the lack of support in services that children routinely use, a yawning gap in their digital education and an unsustainable situation where the long established rights of children are not applied online. The relationship between digital services and children will be an evolving one which will be constantly addressed and updated – but her recommendations are immediate and practical and usefully lay emphasis on those who provide services, the education of children who use them and the responsibilities of the UK government and the UN to update their provisions. I was happy to be part of her enquiry and welcome her recommendations.”

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said:

“Children spend half their leisure time online. The internet is an incredible force for good but it is wholly irresponsible to let them roam in a world for which they are ill-prepared, which is subject to limited regulation and which is controlled by a small number of powerful organisations. It is critical that children are educated better so that they can enjoy the opportunities provided by the internet whilst minimising the well-known risks.

“It is also vital that children understand what they agree to when joining social media platforms, that their privacy is better protected, and they can have content posted about them removed quickly should they wish to.

“I urge the Government to extend the powers of the Children’s Commissioner so that there is independent oversight of the number and type of complaints that social media providers are receiving from young people and I can recommend further action where required.

“When it was created 25 years ago, the internet was not designed with children in mind. No one could have predicted its phenomenal growth, nor that it would become ingrained in every aspect of everyday life. We need to rethink the way we prepare children for the digital world.”

Read the full report

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