Encountering violent online content starts at primary school – Ofcom

15 March 2024, 00:04

Children and violent online content
Children and violent online content. Picture: PA

The regulator said the children it spoke to for the recent study had commonly encountered violent gaming content, verbal discrimination and fighting.

Children first see violent online content while still at primary school and describe it as “inevitable” and “unavoidable”, according to an Ofcom study.

The regulator said the 247 children it spoke to during a research workshop had commonly encountered violent 18+ gaming content, verbal discrimination and fighting.

All of the children reported seeing violent content online, mostly via social media, video-sharing and messaging sites and apps, with “many” saying this had happened before they had reached the platforms’ minimum age restrictions.

Sharing videos of local school and street fights has also become normalised for many of the children, for some because of a desire to build online status among their peers and followers and for others to protect themselves from being labelled as “different” for not taking part.

Some children also mentioned seeing extreme graphic violence, including gang-related content, albeit much less frequently.

Ofcom said the teenage boys it spoke to were the most likely to actively share and seek out violent content, often motivated by a desire to “fit in” and gain popularity, due the high levels of engagement the content attracted.

Some 10 to 14-year-olds described feeling pressure not only to watch violent content, but to find it “funny”, fearing isolation from their peers if they did not.

Older children were less likely to share violent content, but this was because they appeared to be more desensitised to it.

Most of the children said they unintentionally encountered violent content through large group chats, posts from strangers on their newsfeeds or through systems which they referred to as “the algorithm”.

A child uses a laptop computer (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
The study revealed that children tend to initially see the content unintentionally through personalised recommendations on their social media feeds (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Many felt they had no control over the violent content suggested to them, or how to prevent it, which could make them feel upset, anxious, guilty and even fearful, particularly given they rarely reported it.

A second study for Ofcom by Ipsos UK and social research agency Tonic, revealed that children and young people who had encountered content relating to suicide, self-harm and eating disorders characterised it as “prolific” on social media, saying that such frequent exposure contributed to a “collective normalisation and often desensitisation” to the gravity of the issues.

Again, children and young people tended to initially see the content unintentionally through personalised recommendations on their social media feeds.

Some of those who had lived experience of the issues said they experienced a worsening of their symptoms after first viewing this content online, while others discovered previously unknown self-harm techniques.

A third study for Ofcom by the National Centre for Social Research and City University found that cyberbullying happens anywhere children interact online, with wide-ranging negative impacts on their emotional wellbeing and mental and physical health.

Children said that direct messaging and comment functions were “fundamental enablers” of cyberbullying, with some saying they had been targeted in group chats they had been added to without giving permission.

Ofcom said a recurring theme across all three studies was children’s lack of trust and confidence in flagging and reporting problems.

They worried that dwelling on harmful content in order to report it could lead to being recommended more of the same, leading most to scroll past it instead.

Others described their reports getting lost in the system, receiving only a generic message in reply, the complexity of reporting processes and fear of a lack of anonymity.

Gill Whitehead, Ofcom’s online safety group director, said: “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.”

By Press Association

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