Online adulthood used by one-third of social media users aged eight to 17 | social media

A third of social media users between the ages of eight and 17 are considered to be adults online because they sign up with a fake date of birth, according to a new study.

The fake age problem means that younger users in the UK are at greater risk of being exposed to harmful or adult content because platforms assume they are older than they actually are.

The majority of children aged eight to 17 who use social media have their own profile on at least one of the major platforms, according to research commissioned by communications watchdog Ofcom.

“When a child self-reports a false age for accessing social media or online games, as they age, the age of their self-reported user also increases. This means they could be at an increased risk of encountering age-inappropriate or harmful content online,” Ofcom said.

The regulator added that once a user turns 16 or 18, some platforms introduce features not available to younger users, such as direct messaging or the ability to view adult content.

The study covered six of the major platforms – Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube – all of which have 13-year age limits. Its results suggest that 32% of children aged eight to 17 with a social media profile have a user who is 18 or older, while almost half of children in the same age range have a user who is 16 years old. or more.

The most popular site among all 8-17 year olds was YouTube, followed by TikTok and then Instagram. The majority of respondents had created their account profile themselves.

The Online Safety Bill, due to resume consideration in Parliament before Christmas, imposes a duty of care to protect children from harmful content. The inquest into the death of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old who took her own life in 2017 after viewing harmful content on platforms including Instagram and Pinterest, has revealed she signed up for an account Instagram at the age of 12.

An internet safety expert described the study, based on a survey of more than 1,000 young social media users by Yonder Consulting, as a signal from Ofcom to tech companies that it knows where there is flaws in their operations.

“This is a warning shot to the platforms that Ofcom knows what is happening with these services,” said William Perrin, trustee of the Carnegie UK Trust.

Under the Online Safety Bill, platforms are required to prevent children from accessing harmful content – ​​such as suicidal and self-harming content – ​​with systems that may include strict age checks. As part of a risk assessment process required by the bill, Ofcom will then decide whether each platform’s approach to age verification is thorough enough.

A spokesperson for the Molly Rose Foundation, set up by Molly Russell’s family, said: “Effective regulation through the Online Safety Bill cannot come too soon. Ofcom research shows that by allowing children from the age of eight on their platforms, social media providers are failing in a fundamental duty of care. They have proven unable to control the ability of their platforms to connect our children to distressing and harmful content, with tragic results.

The spokesperson added: “Had the proper age checks been done in Molly’s case, she may have been spared an entire year of exposure to harmful content on Instagram.”

Ofcom has also published research showing that children prefer a ‘self-declaration’ method of age assurance for social media platforms, while parents often prefer ‘parental confirmation’, where they confirm the age of the account holder.

Meta, the owner of Instagram and Facebook, uses artificial intelligence to find underage users. YouTube, owned by Google, allows children under 13 to open accounts under the supervision of a parent or guardian, as well as offering the separate YouTube Kids platform, while TikTok has a age limit that requires people to fill in their full date of birth.

A Snapchat spokesperson said, “Age verification is an industry-wide challenge and we’re in ongoing conversation with other companies and policymakers about consistent and effective solutions.”

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