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Child exploitationDigital skills

Online harms experienced by children and young people: acceptable use and regulation

A group of young people browse their phones whilst sitting on a wall. Overlaid is text that reads "Online Harms Research Hub".

The online world presents opportunities as we have never seen before – for connection, education, and employment. We have never expected children and young people (CYP) to do so much – receive their education, build their skills, and develop their employment prospects – all with minimal supervision, through an unregulated medium, and one which is evolving by the minute.

Growth online has been a blessing in many ways – for connection, for learning and for innovation, but with that, we have seen stark and harmful gaps: a digital divide in skills, leaving the most vulnerable further behind, less diverse supervision over children than ever before, and the rapid escalation of harms online – from cyberbullying to threats, from grooming to criminal and sexual exploitation, and from the sale of illegal substances and witnessing violent content online, to the mental health impact that comes with all of this.

In light of the increasing amount of time children and young people were spending online during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Catch22 launched an Online Harms Consultation in 2020. The survey received responses from young people, frontline professionals, tech platforms and commissioners on the challenges of online behaviour. The findings showed that more than 70% of young people have seen content online that they have found concerning, including violent and explicit content. Only 40% of young people report online harm to the platforms they are using.

Supported by the Mayor of London’s Violence Reduction Unit, Catch22 and Redthread, The Social Switch Project wanted to gain a better insight into children’s and young people’s perceptions of online spaces and what they should be – ‘acceptable use’. We wanted to understand the impact of online harms, and CYP’s opinions, as well as professionals’ views on what could be developed to ensure children and young peoplecan safely thrive online.

Considering the ongoing discussions about regulatory and legislative reforms, the incoming Online Safety Bill and the implementation of the UK Information Commissioner’s ‘Age Appropriate Design Code’, this report advocates for children and young people’s voices, experiences, and opinions to be at the centre of all discussions on policy reforms in this area.