Sonia LivingstoneIn a report released today the NSPCC calls for honest conversations within families about when, how and why kids engage with diverse social networking sites. The LSE’s Sonia Livingstone examines the findings and argues that it is time to ask how social networking sites can do more to increase safety and who should be responsible for offering this type of independent check on these sites in the future. 

To make their point, NSPCC has done something I have often hoped for – a kind of mystery shopping exercise by the public on just what these sites offer – in terms of both risk and safety. And this gives us a clearer sense of the persisting problems than we get from many policy reviews. Specifically, the new report shows:

  • The first problem is that many adults haven’t even heard of the most popular sites used by children and teenagers (are you familiar with MeowChat, Skout, Omegle or Kik?).
  • On more than half of the sites, parents can easily find worrying sexual, self-harm, bullying, violent or other inappropriate content. This includes some of the big names (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube) and some of the supposed ‘good guys’ (Habbo Hotel, Minecraft, Miniclip).
  • To be sure, parents might guess that sites with names like ChatRoulette or Sickipedia or FMyLife aren’t going to be really safe. But lots of sites stay ‘under the radar’ and parents are unlikely to find out about them before the kids do.
  • Nor do many social network sites make it easy for kids or parents to figure out what to do when they encounter something problematic: on 4 in 10 sites, it was a struggle for parents to find privacy, reporting and safety information, says the NSPCC.

Interestingly, children agree that there are problems with these sites:

  • Talking to strangers or sexual content are the main things that concern them, although they also find the sites fun, enjoying the risky opportunities that the internet offers.
  • For almost half the sites, they think the minimum age limits should be higher (while their parents think the minimum should be raised in 75% of them).

For the NSPCC, who conducted this study with nearly 2000 children and a large panel of parents from Mumsnet, this makes it imperative for parents to discuss the pros and cons of social networking with their children – and their new Share Aware resources are a great starting point. The UK’s Safer Internet Centre does a great job too in guiding parents. And to those who think kids don’t listen to their parents – EU Kids Online’s research shows that if parents do set age limits on their kids’ use of social network sites, kids will pay attention (especially when they’re younger). But at the same time, lots of kids struggle with the sites – and those who can’t manage their privacy settings find themselves revealing personal information in public.

Our recent research from EU Kids Online and Net Children Go Mobile shows that there are indeed grounds for concern. In the UK:

  • Lots of children are using Facebook under age – 18% of 9‐ to 10‐year‐olds and 25% of 11‐ to 12‐year‐olds have a profile.
  • Although the number of online contacts children report is dropping (in 2013 just 10% of 9-16 year olds said that have 300+ contacts, compared with 16% in 2010), 14% in the UK say accept all ‘friend’ requests, more than the European average of 9% and lower only than that of Romanian children (18%).

And we found similar grounds for concern across Europe:

  • From 2010 to 2014, 9-16 year olds exposure to potentially negative forms of user-generated content (such as hate, pro-anorexic or self-harm content) online became more common and the percentage of children aged 11-16 years old who reported receiving nasty or hurtful (‘cyberbullying’) messages rose from 8% to 12%.

So from a policy perspective, it is time to ask not only, what can parents do but also can’t social networking sites do more? Weren’t the Safer Social Networking Principles for the EU designed to make it easier for kids (and parents) to find safety information, set privacy settings and report problems? To be sure, as the ICT Coalition’s independent evaluator confirms, lots of improvements have been made but we’re living in a fast-changing landscape and more efforts are still needed. A few years ago, EU Kids Online’s research showed the struggles parents and children were having in finding and using the tools provided by social networking services. From the new NSPCC report, it seems like things haven’t improved enough – problems still occur – and across a growing number of sites used by kids.

So, it’s great that NSPCC and Mumsnet have checked out all these sites and offered a transparent and independent report for parents on this occasion. But, as I’ve argued before on this blog, parents need a reliable, regular and independent check on the online services that children use judged against public values and transparent standards, whether it is conducted across Europe or just for the UK. Who will and who should do this next time?

This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.