A third of children aged between 8 and 17 sign in on social media with a false date of birth so they show up as an adult user. Two-thirds of children aged between 8 and 12 had help from a parent or guardian to set up the false profile, according to new research commissioned by UK’s media regulating authority Ofcom.
Yonder Consulting, that made the study, found that 77% of children aged between 8 and 17 who use social media now have their own profile on at least one of the large platforms.
Despite most platforms having a minimum age of 13, 60% of children aged 8 to 12 who use these platforms are signed up with their own profile.
Among those aged 8 to 12, up to half had set up at least one of their profiles themselves, while up to two-thirds had help from a parent or guardian.
Ofcom says this means they could be placed at greater risk of encountering age-inappropriate or harmful content online. Once a user reaches age 16 or 18, some platforms, for example, introduce certain features and functionalities not available to younger users – such as direct messaging and the ability to see adult content.
“Yonder’s study sought to estimate the proportion of children that have social media profiles with ‘user ages’ that make them appear older than they actually are. The findings suggest that almost half (47%) of children aged 8 to 15 with a social media profile have a user age of 16+, while 32% of children aged 8 to 17 have a user age of 18+”, Ofcom says.
“Among the younger, 8 to 12s age group, the study estimated that two in five (39%) have a user age profile of a 16+ year old, while just under a quarter (23%) have a user age of 18+.”
Ofcom says a study by Revealing Reality of risk factors shows:
- a child’s pre-existing vulnerabilities such as any special educational needs or disabilities, existing mental health conditions and social isolation;
- offline circumstances such as bullying or peer pressure, feelings such as low self-esteem or poor body image;
- design features of platforms which either encouraged and enabled children to build large networks of people – often that they didn’t know; or exposed them to content and connections they hadn’t proactively sought out; and
- exposure to personally relevant, targeted, or peer-produced content, and material that was appealing as it was perceived as a solution to a problem or insecurity.
“The study indicated that the severity of any impact can vary between children. This ranged from minimal transient emotional upset (such as confusion or anger), temporary behaviour-change or deep emotional impact (such as physical aggression or short-term food restriction), to far-reaching, severe psychological and physical harm (such as social withdrawal or acts of self-harm).”
Ofcom says a third study shows parents and children are broadly supportive of the principle of age assurance, but also identifies that some methods raise concerns about privacy, parental control, children’s autonomy and usability.
“Parents told us that they were concerned with keeping their children safe online, but equally wanted them to learn how to manage risks independently through experience. Many also didn’t want their children to be left out of online activities that their peers are allowed to take part in, and others felt that their children’s level of maturity, rather than simply their numerical age, was a primary consideration in the freedom they had.”