Seeing violent online content starts in primary school, claims Ofcom study

Internet, News, Social Media

Children first see violent online content while still at primary school and describe it as an inevitable part of being online, according to new research commissioned by Ofcom.

All children who took part in the research came across violent content online, mostly via social media, video-sharing and messaging sites and apps. Many say this is before they have reached the minimum age requirement to use these services.

The children Ofcom spoke to commonly encounter violent 18+ gaming content, verbal discrimination and fighting content. Sharing videos of local school and street fights has also become normalised for many of the children. For some, this is because of a desire to build online status among their peers and followers. For others, it is to protect themselves from being labelled as ‘different’ for not taking part.

Some children mention seeing extreme graphic violence, including gang-related content, albeit much less frequently. And while they’re aware that the most extreme violent material can be found on the dark web, none of the children Ofcom spoke to had accessed this themselves.

Teenage boys seek online kudos

The teenage boys Ofcom spoke to were the most likely to share and seek out violent content actively. This is often motivated by a desire to ‘fit in’ and gain popularity, due to the high levels of engagement this content attracts. Some 10–14-year-olds in the groups describe feeling pressure not only to watch violent content but to find it ‘funny’, fearing isolation from their peers if they don’t. Older children appear to be more desensitised to violent content, and are less likely to share it.

Most of the children say they encounter violent content unintentionally via large group chats, posts from strangers on their newsfeeds, or through recommender systems which they refer to as ‘the algorithm’.

Many feel they have no control over the violent content suggested to them, or how to prevent it. This can make them feel upset, anxious, guilty – particularly given they rarely report it – and even fearful.

Carried out by Family, Kids and Youth, the report is one in a series of research studies to build Ofcom’s understanding of children’s pathways to harm online. 

A second study, conducted on Ofcom’s behalf by Ipsos UK and TONIC, reveals that children and young people who have encountered content relating to suicide, self-harm and eating disorders have a strong familiarity with such content. They characterise it as prolific on social media and feel frequent exposure contributes to a collective normalisation and often desensitisation to the gravity of these issues.

A third research study conducted on Ofcom’s behalf by the National Centre for Social Research in partnership with City University – and supported by the Anti-Bullying Alliance and The Diana Award – reveals that cyberbullying happens anywhere children interact online, with wide-ranging negative impacts on their emotional wellbeing and mental and physical health.

A recurring theme in today’s studies is children’s lack of trust and confidence in the flagging and reporting process.

They worry, Ofcom says, that dwelling on harmful content to report it could lead to being recommended more of the same, so most choose to scroll past it instead. Other children describe their experience of reports getting lost in the system, and only receiving generic messages in reply to their report.

They also express concerns about the complexity of reporting processes, how approaches vary widely between platforms and fear a lack of anonymity.

Says Gill Whitehead, Ofcom’s Online Safety Group Director:

“Children should not feel that seriously harmful content – including material depicting violence or promoting self-injury – is an inevitable or unavoidable part of their lives online.

“Today’s research sends a powerful message to tech firms that now is the time to act so they’re ready to meet their child protection duties under new online safety laws. Later this spring, we’ll consult on how we expect the industry to make sure that children can enjoy an age-appropriate, safer online experience.”



Chris Price
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