Raising awareness of online harms

22 July 2020

Developing and sharing expertise to protect against online harms; helping people to better use and understand media and communications.

Almost nine in 10 UK adults are online, with 64% saying it is an essential part of their life. As the internet becomes more important to people, the time they spend online increases. Ofcom research shows that adults who use the internet spend an average of 24 hours a week online, almost double the time spent online in 2007.

Consumer impact

There are growing concerns around protecting people online. Joint research from Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office showed that over four out of every five adults internet users have concerns about going online. Some of those concerns relate to areas like hacking or privacy. But, the most common, raised by three in four people, related to children’s exposure to content or contact with other users. Our research found that some 22 million adults using the internet have personally experienced online content or conduct that is potentially harmful.

What we’ve done

In September 2018 Ofcom published a discussion document drawing on our experience regulating the broadcasting sector which set out the principles that could form the basis for future regulation addressing harmful online content.

We use various methodologies to develop a full picture of the behaviour and attitudes of UK adults and children in relation to their online, media and communications habits. Over the last year we have continued to report on both adults’ and children’s media literacy, and their levels of news consumption. We publish reports throughout the year, and hold events to promote the findings and discuss issues arising from them. For example, we held a major event at the British Library in July 2019 covering a range of subjects including critical understanding, online bullying, personal data, and digital inclusion.

In 2019 we expanded our media literacy activities by launching the Making Sense of Media (MSOM) programme. This incorporates and builds on our research activities with a focus on collaboration and co-ordination with relevant stakeholders and their activities. The MSOM network connects organisations and individuals with expertise in media literacy to work towards

a shared goal of improving the online skills, knowledge and understanding of UK adults and children. The MSOM panel brings together expert representatives to debate and inform the development of our media literacy research and policy work.

In May 2019 we published a new annual report, Online Nation. It examined how people are served by internet content and services, and their attitudes towards being online. The research helps bring together data and insight on how the online landscape is evolving and the potential harms which arise from increasing use of online services.

Alongside this report we also updated our analysis and research on adults’ media use and attitudes, and our latest research into online harms, which was conducted in January 2020 and jointly commissioned with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The study found that most internet users in the UK have concerns about being online, with over four in every five harbouring concerns. Additionally, in 2020 we found that the proportion of adults with an unpromoted concern about some aspect of using the internet had risen since 2019, from 78% to 81%. However, most adults (66%) agree that the benefits of going online outweigh the risks.

We examined where people came across their most recent potentially harmful experience, concluding that social media is the leading source – in particular Facebook, which was cited by 23% of its adult users, followed by Instagram, Twitter and TikTok (each cited by 9% of users). Only 45% of adults agreed that websites and social media sites provided the tools needed to keep them safe online, although this rises to 59% of 12- to 15-year-old children.

We have also found that support for greater online regulation has increased in the past two years in a range of areas. Most adults favour tighter rules for social media sites (66% in 2020, up from 52% in 2018); video-sharing sites (57% v. 46% in 2018); and instant-messaging services (56% v. 40% in 2018).

We followed this up in February 2020 when we published our reports into children’s media literacy (based on research conducted in 2019). Our findings show that, in 2019 fewer parents feel that the benefits of their child being online outweigh the risks compared to five years ago. Also, parents are increasingly concerned about their child seeing self-harm related content online and some elements of online gaming, compared to 2018. We also found children are using a wider range of social media platforms than before, with TikTok and Twitch emerging as examples of new platforms being used.

In July 2019 we published further detailed research examining people’s experiences of online harm, their response to it and the type of protection they expect when they go online – this qualitative study complemented the quantitative research from May. We also looked at how artificial intelligence technologies could evolve to help moderate online content over the next five years.

In October 2019 we published a paper outlining from an economic perspective how market failures in online services may cause a wide range of harms to individuals and society across many policy areas and the challenges faced in the regulation of such services.

In February 2020 the Government announced that it was minded to appoint Ofcom as the UK’s online harms regulator. The scope and design of any new legislation is a matter for Government and Parliament. We share the Government’s ambition to keep people safe online and will work with them to help ensure that regulation provides effective protection for people online. We will be working closely with the Government in the coming months, as the details of the new regime are developed.

Outcomes and next steps

In 2020/21 we will publish our adults’ media literacy research and our annual news consumption survey in the summer, and our children’s media literacy research later in the financial year. We will continue to use the findings to help develop policy thinking in these areas.

There is a clear need to improve how consumers are protected online. Building upon our work
to date, we will continue to deepen our understanding of the harms being faced by people online and the steps we might take to help address them.

We will engage with Government and other industry partners as we continue our programme of work and further our research of the complex way in which online services affect peoples’ lives.

As part of this work we will help raise users’ understanding of online services and how to help protect themselves, including working with children and young people with the aim of improving their ability to benefit from online services while managing the risks.

There are unique challenges associated with developing effective regulation in this area. Our objective is to help curtail the internet’s harmful aspects, while preserving its powerful benefits to society, culture, trade and freedom of expression.