Children are increasingly living their lives, and socialising, online. Ofcom’s (Office of Communications) latest research shows that most (77%) social media users aged between eight and 17 have their own account or profile on at least one of the large social media platforms.
And even when they’re not online, conversations with their friends and schoolmates will often focus on the latest social media or online gaming trends. So, if children aren’t on these platforms they can feel excluded from conversations, and even friendship groups.
The pressure isn’t just felt among children; parents feel it too: “They play a game in school like ‘put your hand up if you have this app… this game’, and she was feeling left out so we let her download [the online game].” Mother of eight-year-old girl
Ofcom research tells us that many children, particularly in the younger age range (between eight and 12) had help from their parents or guardians to set up their social media account. In many cases, parents’ motivations include wanting to make sure their child didn’t miss out.
However, the minimum age to create an account on most social media apps is 13, with many platforms asking users to self-declare their age when setting up their account. This means that children under 13 need to say they’re older than they actually are if they want to create an account.
Some children who’ve done this told us that their current profiles made them much older, with extreme examples as high as 50 years old. One of the reasons they give for creating a profile with a much older age is because they believe they’re getting a more limited experience when their profile is registered at a child’s age, and so deliberately register as older.
“Yeah, I’ve always made sure I’m [registered as] over 18 because otherwise you don’t get all the features.” – 16-year-old-girl
Some parents are aware of these age requirements, but allow their under-13 children to use the platforms anyway. This is perhaps because they feel comfortable making a judgment call about whether, for example, their ten-year-old can cope with content suitable for children aged 13 or older.
But perhaps they might not consider or be aware of the potential risks to their child later on. For example, when their child actually turns 13, the platform still thinks they are older – perhaps even an adult, depending on the age they entered when they signed up. This means new features and functionalities might be made available to them, such as private messaging aimed at those aged 16 or over, or adult content aimed at users aged 18 or over.
“I think I set his [social media account] up with my email address, it probably has my age on it too. That’s actually a problem, isn’t it? The algorithm might be treating him like a 42-year-old. That’s food for thought” – Mother of 11-year-old-boy
Ofcom research shows that nearly a quarter of those aged between eight and 12, who use social media and have a profile, have one that makes it appear they are aged 18 or above. That means there’s a lot of children out there who might be at risk of seeing potentially harmful content, and even contact from other users who are unaware of their real age.
The graphic below shows how an eight-year-old using a false date of birth could be putting themselves at risk in later life.
At Ofcom, we have a duty to promote media literacy, helping to improve the online skills, knowledge and understanding of everyone across the UK. This is why we feel it’s important to highlight subjects like this one.
It’s a tricky balance keeping children safe and enabling them to explore the online world. If you’re keen to keep your child safe online, there are a number of simple tips you can follow.
- Recognise your child has a life online – show you understand that being online is important and opens the world up to them. Agree some basic ground rules that you follow too.
- Keep talking and listening – talk regularly about how they live their lives online and what they enjoy about it. Let them know they can talk to you about anything they see.
- Use parental controls – these tools are available for phones, laptops and tablets – as well as your WiFi and individual apps.
- Check your child’s ‘online age’ – if they use a false age to get onto social media apps, they could end up seeing content that’s not suitable for their actual age.
- Be a good digital role model – (for example, take regular screen breaks), have phone free times, talk about what you’re doing online and discuss how to report harmful content.
Author: Lisa Etwell
Research by: Luca Antilli, Caroline Cason, Abbie Flewitt, Tauhid Choudhury
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