by Lesley Salem, Senior Research Director
Today’s kids are growing up in a digital universe with all the power at their fingertips. We already know that the digital world is an enchanting place for kids – but it can also be a dangerous one. Cyberbullying, exposure to unrealistic images, fake news, sexual content, violent imagery… It’s a risky landscape to navigate and could have a detrimental effect on kids’ mental health.
A few weeks ago, YouTube hit the headlines for streaming a video by influential tween icon, Logan Paul. The video showed footage of what appeared to be a dead body in a location, referred to as ‘Suicide Forest’. Shockingly, not only did the video make it through the YouTube filters (receiving 6.3 million views!) but it also made it through to the top trending videos list.
A few months ago, YouTube caused another storm for allowing violent and offensive content to slip through the net. This time it wasn’t just for the main channel but also YouTube Kids – a standalone app built specifically for children and child friendly entertainment.
It’s not only inappropriate content that is a concern. We see, from our studies, that girls as young as six are not only conscious of their body shape but tend to be unhappy with it. We’ve no doubt this is being exacerbated from the proliferation of videos and imagery they are viewing.
With the staggering growth & penetration of smartphone and tablet ownership by children, media viewing and active, digital participation has become individual and child-led and is often unmonitored by responsible adults. This has, not surprisingly, created tension and concern among parents, teachers, and the government with regards to how safe or appropriate the virtual environment is for young people. There’s been considerable investment in education with interventions to help safeguard children but it’s clear this isn’t working hard enough and that the problem stems from children’s homes. Last year, hype on social media led to many children watching an 18-rated, suicide fantasy series called 13 Reasons Why. By the time schools and parents had found out, it was too late. It proves that access to inappropriate content is easy and highlights the lack of involvement parents have in knowing what their kids are getting up to.
A Yugo survey from 2015 found that British parents were reluctant to have conversations with their children about what they’re up to online – waiting until children turned nine to tackle online safety, despite 91% of eight-year olds accessing the internet once a week. Since then, we’ve seen brands such as O2 and EE open the dialogue to support parents with online protection. 02 have partnered with the NSPCC to offer free online resources and workshops in schools whilst EE are also providing parents and children with tips to stay safe online. This comes after 40% of parents reported that they do not consider online safety when buying technology gifts for their children.
Parents tell us that they feel disempowered and deskilled to monitor what their kids are doing online. A generational tech gap exists between kids and parents. However, whilst parents are aware of stealth tracking software to monitor their kids’ surfing and social media feeds, uptake of this is very low. A key reason for children’s online and autonomous independence stems from the fact that in many households, working parents are the norm and unable to be around as much. This has impacted on family dynamics. Parents are much more likely to expect help from their offspring around the home and in return are often rewarded with ‘screen time’. Modern parenting styles also skew towards a liberal approach of trusting their children to be responsible and behaving appropriately, especially as parents’ perceptions are that their kids are equipped to navigate online safely. And let’s not forget ‘pester power’ which is in force among hormonal tweens and teens. Tired parents find it hard to resist allowing kids to watch a video or get a social media campaign when persistently being nagged by their children – especially if they feel this will socially ostracise their kids in their social friendship circles.
Whilst we all know children under the age of 13 shouldn’t have a social media account, recent studies show that the truth is far from this. There’s a direct correlation with social media activity and smart phone ownership and in some markets, this is as young as seven years of age. But it’s not just parents to blame. Many social media platforms are unwilling to admit to an underage user base and squirm their way out of being responsible for this invisible cohort. However, pressure from government, children’s charities, parent and school forums is finally starting to have an effect. Facebook currently has 4,500 moderators and last year announced plans to hire more. Even before Logan Paul’s dramatic fall from grace, YouTube announced similar plans to hire thousands of new moderators.
The media giant is now said to be making changes to the way it moderates content, with a greater focus on footage that might violate their policies whilst further developing advanced learning technology to automatically flag content for removal. It will be interesting to see how future safeguards to protect young people will emerge – especially given the technical skill & knowledge, online giants must have within their reach.
But we also must be careful that support for kids doesn’t mean removing their digital access or being too stringent on restricting their online/social media activity, as there are many benefits about growing up digital and is after all, the world they will be working and communicating within, for years to come.
We hear from kids, parents, and teachers about the benefits digital access has brought to learning and education and enhancing children’s creativity and problem-solving skills. In this information age, kids have a genuine thirst for knowledge and the boundaries between learning and play have blurred into ‘edutainment’. Social media platforms are helping kids understand the importance of growing diverse networks and will put them in good stead in the future and they tap into these for career and leisure purposes.
Growing independence is also helping them learn to self-regulate their behavior and abide by their own standards of what’s right and fair.
They are a generation of kids who have greater awareness of what’s going on in the world and are deeply moved by the negative impact that man is having on the planet and want to change this. Access to personal technology has also helped them develop new and far reaching friendships. We’ve heard from families about how connected they feel with each other through chatting on social media platforms, allowing continual, intermittent exchanges about what’s going on in their life or troubling them.
The government’s Internet Safety Strategy consultation came to an end last month. It will be interesting to see how we find a way to balance the benefits of children being online or on social media with safeguarding them more effectively.
On January 25th, Lesley Salem, head of Razor Kids was a panelist at MRS Kids & Youth Research Conference, exploring ‘the role of research in protecting and empowering young people online’. If you have an idea on how your organisation could get more involved in sharing significant trends around children’s online safety or could have an impact on policy, we’d love to hear from you – [email protected]