Speech by Sharon White, Ofcom Chief Executive, to NSPCC Annual Conference, 26 June 2019.
They say the most difficult part of being a parent is the children. These days, the challenges posed by the internet must come a close second.
This amazing technology has transformed how our children learn and communicate. How they spend their free time, and how they build their sense of identity. But many people worry – at what cost?
Ofcom has followed this closely since 2003, when Parliament gave us the important role of promoting people’s understanding of different media. As part of that work – which we now call Making Sense of Media – we research what people are doing online, and how they feel about it.
Some of what we hear is worrying. But we’ve also formed a really clear, detailed picture of what youngsters value about the internet. Even why they love watching slime on YouTube.
And we’ve explored the steps that children and parents are taking to keep safe. In a moment I’ll share what we’ve heard from parents. But first, here’s what we know from children up and down the UK, who are spending just over two hours online – on average – every day.
Overall, children’s time online stopped growing last year. But as children grow up, their screen time rises. Among children aged 12 to 15, the internet now occupies a fifth of the waking day. That brings pressures that no previous generation has faced. Like appearing popular online. Three quarters of older children feel that’s important.
But our children have never known life without the internet, and they can be savvy. Half of them say people make their life look more interesting online than it really is. Many keep one social account for close friends, and a polished version for others.
Older children can also be pretty shrewd around fake news. They are much less trusting of news on social media than on TV and radio. But they find it harder to judge whether results from search engines can be trusted. And too often, the content they find can be harmful.
A third of older children have come across something worrying or nasty online. And one in five have been contacted online by someone they don’t know. That is clearly very concerning. But it’s encouraging that nearly all kids we asked – those over eight – would tell someone if they saw something worrying online.
And despite all the pressures, overall most children feel the internet is a positive part of their lives. In fact, among older children, nine in ten say social media has helped make them happy or feel closer to their peers.
Most use it to support friends when they’re having a hard time. And four in five older children think they achieve a good balance between screen time and doing other things.
But what do parents and carers think? Our evidence shows they’re less sure that the benefits of being online outweigh the risks. In 2011, two thirds of parents believed so. Now it’s around half. Parents are concerned about their children’s data. Many worry about them damaging their reputation online, or even being radicalised. Nearly half of all adults fear for children’s exposure to pornography, violent material or self-harm. These are diverse, complex issues. And we all share responsibility for tackling them.
That starts at home, so it’s vital we talk to our children about the risks. Most parents do, but our research shows it’s happening a bit less, and not often enough. Not that it’s easy talking to someone who’s glued to Fortnite. By the time children start secondary school, almost half of parents find it hard to control their screen time.
So many parents and carers are using software, like Apple’s ScreenTime, which can restrict time on apps. Or apps like Sky Kids and YouTube Kids. Another good option is parental controls, which filter what children can see. More than nine in ten parents who use these kind of filters find them useful.
We also think more parents could benefit from using controls built in to a device. That might be PINs, passwords and blocks for certain websites. They’re certainly needed. Of all the mobile phones in our children’s hands today, around three in five have no blocks on adult content.
And kids are smart. One in seven parents say their children can get around Wi-Fi filters. So conversations are really important again.
Of course, parents need support too. Most are seeking advice on keeping their child safe – from schools, health experts or bodies such as the NSPCC, which is doing fantastic research in this area.
More than that, we agree with the Government that regulation is needed to reduce online harm. We welcomed plans in the white paper – which I’m sure Jeremy will cover shortly – for a duty of care to be placed on social media companies. Support is growing among the public too. Seven in ten adults now want more regulation of social media sites, up from just half in 2018.
At the same time, there are careful balances to be struck. Parents’ number-one concern is around their children’s data, and the ICO is already considering how that information is shared. Age walls are one option, but there are valid concerns from news sites.
In a similar way, rules around online content need to be proportionate. The internet is a wonderful tool for people to express their views, and blunt regulation could undermine that. Half of adults told us as much.
So we favour regulation that protects freedom of expression – not just by users, but also by newspapers who publish online. These are always careful matters of judgment. But just as in broadcasting, we believe the answer lies in rules that are targeted and balanced.
Who enforces those rules is rightly a matter for Government. The white paper says it might be a new body or an existing regulator, such as Ofcom. We’ve done some initial planning and we are ready to advise on the time and resources that would be needed, if we’re asked.
Separately, we’ve already expanded our Making Sense of Media work, looking at new ways to understand how people are using the media. Alongside our regular research, we’re exploring areas such as how the latest AI techniques can remove harmful content.
And we’ve established a panel of experts – from academics to industry – to share ideas on helping children and adults improve their media skills and understanding.
Because protecting children is the common purpose of everybody here.
Whether we are a company or a charity; a regulator or policymaker; an expert academic, or a worried parent or carer.
Let’s keep sharing our insights and expertise. That way, I think we can help make children’s online time as safe and rewarding as possible.