23 March 2021
Over several months, we’ve been undertaking research into online harms. Led by Dr Faith Gordon, a leading researcher based at the Australian National University, the research looks at children’s and young people’s experiences of online platforms, social media platforms, apps and gaming and how that impacts on their lives.
Clearly for some of the children and young people we’ve been speaking to, the web isn’t always a ‘good’ place:
“I don’t think I know one person who hasn’t had something bad go on online”
“A lot of younger people seem to think that the number of followers you have is a competition. It’s like the number doesn’t give value, but the toxic vibes that some people might bring to your account can harm your wellbeing a lot more than having fewer followers than one of your friends.”
“If the platforms are safe, how does child porn get on to platforms, and how does the grooming happen?”
A previous piece of research we conducted revealed that 70% of young people said they have seen content online that they’ve found concerning, referring to specific violent and explicit content.
On the flip side, for many young people, it is a good place:
“From an educational point of view of social media … the groups chats, where you can just go on the Snapchat group and be like, does anybody know how to do this homework question? I think that has actually got quite a big educational benefit”
“I do think it is a good thing because you can find new hobbies, you can find new people to talk with, new friends, and people who can help you improve being who you are”
And in many ways, this comment probably sums it up perfectly:
“I don’t think social media is a bad thing to begin with. The idea of social media is brilliant, that you have access to everything, you can follow people that you like… There’s just certain aspects that just ruin it for everyone
So what does a ‘good’ web look like?
Principle 1: Guidelines that work
Without going into the ins and outs of the Online Harms Bill – but whatever is put into legislation must obviously be fit for purpose and there must be consequences if online platforms don’t abide by the laws.
As one young person said:
“If that company isn’t doing what they can to make it safe, they’re not doing their job properly”
Take safe usage policies for example. They need to be much easier to understand and actively accepted by users. If policies are broken swift action must be taken – blocking fake accounts, restricting use for harmful users. Young people identify that there is far too much variation between platforms.
Of the young people we talked to as part of the research, only 40% of young people say they report online harms to the platform they are using. That prompts the question; why is that?
Some social media platforms are beginning to act – for example, just last week Instagram introduced a system which means adults are not able to directly contact under-18s unless they’re connected to them.
Let’s take these best practice examples and work them it into universal guidelines. And let’s make sure that guidelines and law must work in tandem – and always with the service user in mind.
Principle 2: Opportunities
When we talk about a ‘good web’ it shouldn’t be just about the desire to create an online world where we’re preventing people being exploited, harmed or exposed to things they shouldn’t be.
It should be about more than surviving online – it should be about thriving online.
There are wonderful examples of people starting up businesses, accessing training and employment opportunities that wouldn’t have been able to do offline – building diverse online communities to further causes or pursue interests.
Let’s make the web not just good – but a fantastic vehicle for driving opportunity
And how do you do that?
Knowledge is power – knowing how use to platforms and the web more generally to best effect, knowing when there are dangers and how to deal with those.
Principle 3: Options
There was a definite sense amongst some of the young people we’ve been working with that despite the web opening up endless options and opportunities, the reality can be quite different
Users can feel channelled towards certain sites, compelled to respond to things in a certain way– bombarded with information that had been ‘selected’ for them to see.
And many spoke of how what they saw online influenced their behaviour – and there was a sense of their own agency being taken away by what they were hearing and seeing:
“It definitely kind of influences what you’re doing or what you would speak about, I guess. If I’m always seeing… a prank or some type of, like there’s something that’s funny and it looks like, maybe I should get involved with that, but deep down you know that you shouldn’t. But because so many people are doing it, it’s like, yes, let me jump on the bandwagon”.
Our earlier survey research revealed that 32% of young people have seen harm occur offline because of something which happened online. And 83% of managers and commissioners of youth services have seen serious harm occur offline because of behaviour online
We’ve seen young people who have become involved in gangs as a result of online activity. We’ve seen young people groomed online which has had serious consequences offline.
As a direct consequence, victim support services describe the long-term support and resources required to assist children and young people who are affected by online harms.
We need to give people back their agency. Make it easier to opt out of direct marketing. Stop the incessant advertising – particularly at children and young people. Clamp down on dark ads.
Having no options when you’re online is incredibly disempowering. And of course that’s even more the case for people who are already vulnerable
As I said earlier, knowledge is power and no less so in an online world.
Principle 4: Digital Inclusion
Finally – there is no point creating a ‘good web’ if people can’t access it. Two million households are without access to the internet and 22% of the UK population lack basic digital skills.
At Catch22, we run a number of alternative provision schools, for young people outside mainstream education. Our teachers have told us how during the pandemic they’ve stood on the pupil’s doorsteps giving their parents lessons in basic digital skills – how to set up Teams, how to access online classes. Digital poverty is far more widespread than we may think.
The pandemic has brought this starkly into light
Those who can use the web safely and thrive online shouldn’t only be those people who are already at an advantage. If we accept that we live in a digital age then the access to the internet should be a fundamental right, not a privilege.
Listen to what users are saying – especially young people – and especially young people who have been exposed to online harms. But equally, let’s listen to people who are thriving online. Yes, let’s clamp down on those abusing the internet and create fit for purpose guidelines and legislation, but let’s also give people back their agency and focus on educating people and building skills to empower people to make the most of what the web has to offer.
And as that young person said: let’s get rid of the ‘aspects that just ruin it for everyone’ and follow the ‘GOOD’ web principles.
Find out more:
- Read our response to the recent Online Harms Bill
- Catch up on our recent Online Harms: regulation or education event
- Discover the results from our initial consultation into online harms