29th September 2022

Digital childhoods: a survey of children and parents

Foreword from Dame Rachel de Souza

Young people turning 18 this year were born in 2004, the year that Facebook was founded. This generation hasn’t known a world without social media, smartphones and 24-hour communication. This has brought a world of wonderful benefits; never before has a generation been so connected and well-informed. Yet the major social networking platforms, where so much of childhood is now spent, were simply not designed with children’s safety, wellbeing, and best interests in mind.

As Children’s Commissioner, it is my duty to represent the views and rights of this digital generation. I see it as my responsibility to understand what it is like to grow up within the online world. I want to understand the joys and opportunities, as well as the real risks and harms, to ensure that tech firms, Government departments, teachers, parents, and caregivers take seriously their responsibility to support online childhoods.

I have spent the last 18 months as Children’s Commissioner listening closely to children and parents. I have also convened social networking platforms and requested information on their child safety policies.

I am simply not satisfied that enough is being done to keep children safe online. Girls as young as 9 told my team about strategies they employ when strangers ask for their home address online. In a room of 15 and 16-year-olds, three quarters had been sent a video of a beheading. I conducted a nationally representative survey of 2,005 children and their parents to understand families’ perspectives on online safety. My survey found that children are frequently exposed to a wide range of inappropriate and harmful content online, included sexualised and violent imagery, anonymous trolling, and material promoting suicide, self-harm and eating disorders.

Children tell me that they rarely seek out this content. It is promoted and offered up to them by highly complex recommendation algorithms, which are designed to capture and retain their attention. When harmful content is reported to platforms, children tell me that little is done in response.

Self-regulation by tech companies has failed; the experiences of so many children are testament to that. Yet we have an enormous opportunity to right these wrongs through the Online Safety Bill and careful regulation by Ofcom. It is vital that the Bill keeps children’s safety at its heart.

Throughout all my work on digital policy, my guiding principle is to allow children to be the experts. It’s crucial that children’s views and experiences are central to the Online Safety Bill. I see it as my role to ensure that children’s voices underpin each stage of the legislative process, as well as inform Ofcom’s work in drafting the Codes of Practice which will define their regulation.

As a first step in this effort, I am delighted to present in this report findings from a survey of children and their parents. I will soon also convey the voices of children who participated in online safety focus groups. It is vital that the voices of children remain central to the debate.