Children need a new digital watchdog to protect them from bullying, data-selling and privacy abuses on social media sites such as Instagram, a new report has warned.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, called for urgent action after a year-long study found that youngsters aged from four to 17 were ill-equipped to cope with the dangers of the internet.
The new report, Growing Up Digital, found that teachers and parents are often unable to deal with the pace of technological change and that youngsters were more concerned about threats from fellow pupils and friends than from strangers.
Blogging for HuffPost UK, Longfield said that kids were left to learn about online activity alone.
“It is irresponsible to let children roam in a world for which they’re ill-prepared, which is subject to limited regulation and which is controlled by a small number of powerful organisations,” she writes.
“Like many parents, I’m concerned we’re failing to equip children with the skills they need.”
The report, which the Government said it would now look at “carefully”, calls for:
* an end to “impenetrable terms and conditions” that “give social media giants control over children’s data without any accountability”.
* a digital ombudsman to help children to remove content about themselves and force firms to be more transparent
* a compulsory digital citizenship programme in every school from ages 4-14
The Growing Up Digital Taskforce, which included lawyers, tech experts and child policy chiefs, found that the time children spend online is continuing to increase.
Three-to-four-year olds’ online use increased from 6 hours 48 minutes to 8 hours 18 minutes a week over the last year and 12-15 year olds spend over 20 hours a week online.
It found that although much of bullying, sexting and harassment that children complain about is illegal, they often do not know how to report concerns - and when they do, are dissatisfied with any action taken.
More than a third of 12-15 year olds have seen hateful content directed at a particular group of people in the last year, while the number of children counselled by Childline about online bullying has doubled over the last 5 years.
Instagram suggests only children over 13 should have their accounts but many younger than that find ways to circumvent the rules and primary school pupils often use the social media site.
“While adults have a tendency to talk about ‘risks as if they come from strangers and far away, children see risk – of bullying and violent or sexual content for example – arising in their every day chat with people from school and find these much harder to negotiate”.
The study says that it is “impossible” to know how many children are reporting abusive content. When the Children’s Commissioner requested information from Facebook and Google about the number and types of requests they receive from minors to remove content about themselves, neither was able to provide it.
Longfield said that research suggested that almost a third of 15 year olds have sent a naked photo of themselves at least once - and more than a third of 12-15 year olds have seen hateful content directed at a particular group of people in the last year.
The report also found that when children use social media they sign up to terms and conditions that they could never be expected to understand, including hidden clauses which waive their right to privacy and allow the content they post to be sold.
Instagram, which is used by 56% of 12-15 year olds and 43% of 8-11 year olds, has terms and conditions stretching over 17-pages of text, which run to 5,000 words, and no teenagers in the study understood fully what the terms and conditions committed them to.
An expert in privacy law on the Growing Up Digital panel simplified, demystified and condensed the terms and conditions so that they were comprehensible to youngsters, leaving many of them shocked by what they had unwittingly signed up to.
Growing Up Digital recommends that every child in the country studies digital citizenship to build online resilience, learn about their rights and responsibilities online and prepare them for their digital lives.
It recommends that social media companies rewrite their terms and conditions so that children understand and can make informed decisions about them. And it asks the Government to implement legislation similar to that being introduced by the EU to protect children’s privacy and data online.
Longfield said: “Children spend half their leisure time online. The internet is an incredible force for good but it is wholly irresponsible to let them roam in a world for which they are ill-prepared, which is subject to limited regulation and which is controlled by a small number of powerful organisations.
“It is also vital that children understand what they agree to when joining social media platforms, that their privacy is better protected, and they can have content posted about them removed quickly should they wish to.
“I urge the Government to extend the powers of the Children’s Commissioner so that there is independent oversight of the number and type of complaints that social media providers are receiving from young people and I can recommend further action where required.”
Baroness Beeban Kidron, founder of the online safety group 5Rights and a member of the Growing Up Digital steering group said: “The Children’s Commissioner has made an important intervention on a subject that is a central concern of parents, carers, teachers and young people themselves.
“She has identified the lack of support in services that children routinely use, a yawning gap in their digital education and an unsustainable situation where the long established rights of children are not applied online.”
Shadow Digital Economy Minister Louise Haigh told HuffPost: “Children are having to fend for themselves in an online world that is becoming as much a part of their lives as the offline world.
“That’s why Labour have repeatedly called for statutory online education so children can make informed decisions online and ask questions in a safe environment.
“With online bullying on the rise, data mined without true consent and children left with little control over the content they share, Ministers need to get their act together and backing the recommendations in this report would be a good start.
“But not only are the traditional safety issues of concern, privacy and the commodification of data are as much a problem for children now as they are for adults.
A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport told HuffPost: “The internet has given children and young people fantastic opportunities, but protecting them from risks they might face online or on their phones is vital.
“The UK is a world leader in internet safety, but there is more to do, and we will carefully consider this report as part of our ongoing work to make the internet a safer place for children.”
Ministers have insisted that media companies must have robust processes in place to address inappropriate and abusive content on their sites, and want make sure children are taught about online safety. The Government is investing £4.5 million in supporting teachers to deliver the new computing curriculum, which includes e-safety.
An NSPCC spokesman said: “This report raises vital questions about how children grow up safely online and we welcome the Children’s Commissioner’s recommendations.
“In particular, we have long called for greater openness by internet companies about what they are doing to keep children safe and what action is taken to remove content when concerns are raised.
“A digital ombudsman would need to be truly independent of industry and Government, if they are to be a strong advocate for children and help ensure that internet companies adhere to a set of minimum standards for child safety online.”
Michelle Napchan, Instagram Head of Policy, for Europe said: “Instagram began as a mobile app, so we have always prioritised giving people easy to understand, clear information about our safety and privacy policies, which can be accessed right from their phones.
“We provide multiple ways for our community to find the information and resources they need. We recognise in many cases, when people need help, they want it when they’re using the app.
“That is why we go beyond our terms and guidelines to offer in-app safety and privacy help - from reporting, to industry-leading comment tools and self-help resources. We have also produced a guide for parents to help them talk to their teenagers about internet safety.”
A Facebook spokesperson said: “We have designed Facebook privacy settings to make them easy to use, and have developed extensive resources to support teens and parents to help them better understand how Facebook works including our Parent Portal, Safety Centre and Bullying Prevention Hub.
“We will continue to work closely with partners in this space to educate young people and make our platform easy for everyone to understand”.