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Younger children increasingly online and unsupervised, Ofcom says

The communications regulator said around a quarter (24%) of five-to-seven-year-olds now own a smartphone, and three-quarters use a tablet computer.

In its annual study of children’s relationship with the media and online worlds, Ofcom said the number of children aged between five and seven who go online to send messages or make voice and video calls had risen 6% on last year to 65%, while half now watch live-streamed content, up from 39%.

The use of social media sites has also risen, with 38% of five-to-sevens now said to be using social media platforms, with WhatsApp, TikTok, Instagram and Discord in particular seeing growth – despite these sites requiring users to be at least 13 years old to have an account.

In addition, the study also found that while 42% of parents said they used social media with their child, 32% said their child used social media independently.

The number of parents of younger children who said they were more likely to allow their child to have a social media profile before they reached the minimum age required has also risen, Ofcom said, from 25% to 30%.

Ofcom’s report says: “While parental concerns in some areas have increased considerably, their enforcement of rules appears to be diminishing, in part perhaps because of resignation about their ability to intervene in their children’s online lives.”

It adds that while parents, in general, still feel there are positives to their children being online, concerns around some aspects of it remain.

“We’ve asked for many years about whether parents feel that the benefits of their child going online outweigh the risks,” the report says.

Over the period, although parents have on balance felt positive, there has been an increase in uncertainty.

“And when we altered the question in 2022, separating out gaming, social media, and being online more generally, we saw that parents regarded their child’s gaming and use of social media as more risky than beneficial, although 57% of parents of five-15s still thought that being online in general was a good thing for their child.”

The publication of the research comes as the regulator prepares to launch a consultation on its draft children’s safety code of practice for tech firms, which will set out how platforms are expected to protect younger users of their services under the Online Safety Act.

Ofcom said it was also planning to launch an additional consultation later this year on how artificial intelligence can be used to mitigate the spread of harmful content online.

Secretary of State for Science, Technology and Innovation Michelle Donelan said: “Children as young as five should not be accessing social media and these stark findings show why our Online Safety Act is essential.

“Most platforms say they do not allow under-13s onto their sites and the Act will ensure companies enforce these limits or they could face massive fines. If they fail to comply with Ofcom decisions and keep children safe their bosses could face prison.

“Protecting children online is our number one priority and we will not hesitate to build on the Act to keep them safe.”



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