Could parents’ concerns start to drive important changes within the digital industries?

Today’s Ofcom update on parents’ rising concern over children online, highlights some interesting points. Their study of children’s media and online lives indicates that more parents than ever feel children’s online use carries more risks than benefits – yet at the same time, children are achieving digital independence earlier.

Naturally, there is concern amongst parents that their children seeing hateful content online, yet the biggest concerns appear to relate to gaming and self-harm. It is important to clarify here that parents’ ‘gaming’ concerns appear to be in relation to those made available by the video games industry (as opposed to online gambling), albeit that there could be some blurring of lines when considering the first of the parents’ two gaming-related concerns include the prevalence of ‘loot boxes’[1].

The second gaming-related concern that is increasingly troubling parents relates to bullying as a result of playing online games. This is particularly important in the context of Ofcom’s other findings: the rise of the ‘vlogger next door’ and the changing online habits by gender[2]. These findings pose some real challenges for the video games industry in terms of how a child’s time online can be managed and also ensuring that payment mechanisms within the online game environment are not targeted or freely accessible by children.

The study also confirms that older children are using a wider range of social media platforms, and that these are often growing in popularity despite having a minimum age limit which is older than they are. This is a constant challenge for social media platforms and one which doesn’t seem to be improving.

As one in 20 older[3] children use Twitch – the live streaming platform for gamers – we see these issues collide. How should the age of the user be used to decide what content they can see (even if they cannot play)?

We have seen many similar issues play out in the online betting and gaming sector – operators now need to have games kept behind a robust age-verification system (even if they are promotional or ‘free to play’) and they need to ensure that advertising for gambling products is not of particular appeal to those children who are not old enough to play them (or kept out of sight if the materials are likely to appeal).

With video-sharing and other social media platforms playing such a dominant and increasing role in the lives of young (and older) children, this study serves as a timely reminder that if children are digitally independent from the age of 10, the digital industries will need to work harder to protect them from online harms.

[1] The pressure on children to make in-game purchases of things like ‘loot boxes’, a virtual item containing rewards is troubling parents more – now 47% are concerned, up from 40% in 2018.

[2] Almost half (48%) of girls aged 5-15 now play games online – a big rise from 39% in 2018. The proportion of boy gamers is unchanged at 71%, but boys spend twice as long playing online each week as girls (14 hours 36 minutes vs. 7 hours 30 minutes).

[3] Children aged 12-15.