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Concern over the rise of TikTots – young children accessing social media

The UK’s media regulator Ofcom has raised concerns about the levels of very young children accessing social media.

New Ofcom research has revealed large percentages of parents are allowing youngsters to use TikTok, YouTube and Instagram.

Themes emerging from the research include:

Multi-screening TikTots.

Despite being under the minimum age requirement (13 for most social media sites), 33% of parents of 5-7s and twice as many 8-11s (60%) said they have a social media profile. Older children are most likely to have a profile on Instagram (55% of 12-15s), while younger children aged 8-11 were more likely to have profiles on TikTok (34%) and YouTube (27%).

TikTok in particular is growing in popularity, even among the youngest age groups; 16% of 3-4 year-olds and  29% of 5-7s use the platform. And the popularity of short-form content could be linked to multi-screening, with more children reporting difficulties in focusing on a single online activity. Children reported being unable to watch films, or other long-form content, without being on multiple devices at the same time. In fact, only 4% of children aged 3-17 say they never do anything else while watching TV.

Concealing life online.

Many children could be tactically using other accounts or ‘finstas’ – fake Instagrams – to conceal aspects of their online lives from parents. Two-thirds of 8-11-year-olds had multiple accounts or profiles (64%). Among these, almost half (46%) have an account just for their family to see. A fifth of 16-17 years-olds (20%) choose to have separate profiles dedicated to a hobby such as skateboarding, gaming or photography.
More than a third of children (35%) reported engaging in potentially risky behaviours, which could hinder a parent or guardian keeping proper checks on their online use. A fifth surfed in incognito mode (21%), or deleted their browsing history (19%), and one in 20 circumvented parental controls put in place to stop them visiting certain apps and sites (6%).

Scrolling over sharing.

Children are seeing less video content from friends online, and more from brands, celebrities and influencers. Feeds full of slick professionalised content seem to be encouraging a trend towards scrolling instead of sharing, with both adults (88%) and children (91%) three times as likely to watch videos online, than to post their own videos (30% and 31% respectively).

Campaigning, wellbeing and social Samaritans.

Children feel positive about the benefits of being online, and many use social media as a force for good. Over half (53%) of 13–17-year-olds feel that being online is good for their mental health, compared with 17% who disagreed.

Nearly a quarter of teenagers follow the profiles of activists or campaigners (23%), one in five writes posts in support of causes (21%), while more than one in 10 follow political parties or campaign groups (12%).

Eight in ten 13-17 year-olds are using online services to support their personal wellbeing. A quarter said they have learnt about healthy eating online, or have found help with ‘growing-up issues’ like relationships and puberty. A fifth used the internet to follow fitness programmes and health trackers, or to get help when feeling sad, anxious, or worried. Similarly, about one in 10 went online to help with sleep issues, to meditate, or to help them feel energised, with Calm (34%) and Headspace for Kids (29%) the most popular apps used.

Young digital natives, who have never known life without the internet, are also sharing their technical skills and supporting others. Most young adult internet users aged 16-24 had helped others to do things online (86%), with half of those (46%) offering assistance weekly.

Anisa MorridadiAnisa Morridadi, Founder and CEO of Beatfreeks, who has been training teachers to help children and young people better cope with the digital world they live in, said: “Over the last two years, largely owing to the effects of the pandemic, we’ve seen changes to the concerns, fears and consumption of online content among children and  young people. It’s vital we take note, educate and make changes to ensure our young people are able to exist confidently and safely in the online world in which they regularly inhabit.

“For the past two years, we have successfully delivered the Be Internet Citizens programme to hundreds of teachers who will reach hundreds of thousands of young people across the country. We have provided teachers with the training and support needed to empower their young people to be safe and have positive voices online.

“It’s everyone’s responsibility to keep each other safe online. This is particularly the case in schools. Research shows that if parents want advice about online safety, their children’s school is usually the first port of call. That means that it is absolutely essential that teachers and other school staff are aware of any developments and trends in online usage and what measures can be taken to restrict access to inappropriate content and help keep children safe.”

The Ofcom research also found that more than a third of internet users were unaware that online content might be false or biased.

Every minute sees 500 hours of content uploaded to YouTube, 5,000 videos viewed on TikTok and 695,000 stories shared on Instagram. Given the sheer volume of information at the touch of our smartphones, having the right critical skills and understanding to decipher fact from fiction has never been more important.

But Ofcom’s study reveals that 30% of UK adults who go online (14.5 million) are unsure about, or don’t even consider, the truthfulness of online information. A further 6% – around one in every twenty internet users – believe everything they see online. 

Misinformation can spread quickly on social media platforms. More than four in ten adults say they have seen a story on social media that looked deliberately untrue or misleading in the last year.

To interrogate this trend, participants were shown social media posts and profiles to determine whether they could verify their authenticity. This reveals that users’ confidence in their ability to spot fake content belies their true critical capabilities.

Although seven in 10 adults (69%) said they were confident in identifying misinformation, only two in 10 (22%) were able to correctly identify the tell-tale signs of a genuine post, without making mistakes. We saw a similar pattern among older children aged 12-17 (74% confident but only 11% able).

Similarly, around a quarter of adults (24%) and children (27%) who claimed to be confident in spotting misinformation were unable to identify a fake social media profile in practice.

Support for tougher rules

With the Online Safety Bill being introduced to Parliament on 17 March, support for greater online protection is growing.

Four in five adult internet users (81%) want to see tech firms take responsibility for monitoring content on their sites and apps. Two thirds (65%) also want protection against inappropriate or offensive content.

Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom Chief Executive, said: “In a volatile and unpredictable world, it’s essential that everyone has the tools and confidence to separate fact and fiction online – whether it’s about money, health, world events or other people.

But many adults and children are struggling to spot what might be fake. So we’re calling on tech firms to prioritise rooting out harmful misinformation, before we take on our new role helping to tackle the problem. And we’re offering tips on what to consider when you’re browsing or scrolling.”

Tips to help spot misinformation

  • Check the source. This isn’t necessarily who shared the information with you, but where it originated from.
  • Question the source. Are they established and trustworthy, or might they have a reason to mislead?
  • Take a step back. Before you take something at face value, think about your own motives for wanting to believe it.
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