Smart steps


Nearly a quarter of British five-to-seven-year-olds now have their own smartphone, according to Ofcom research. And nearly two in five are using the messaging service WhatsApp, despite its minimum age of 13. This has prompted a warning from the communications regulator that parental enforcement of rules ‘appears to be diminishing.’ The regulator says the figures should be a wake-up call for the industry to do more to protect children.

‘The industry must take account of the users they have, not the users that their terms and conditions say they have,’ says Mark Bunting from Ofcom's Online Safety Group. ‘We've known for a long time that children under the age limit are widely using the most popular apps, and companies are now under a legal obligation to take steps to keep those children safe.’

Some campaigners want age limits to be introduced for smartphone use, and existing ones raised for social media.

But most phones used by children are likely to have been provided by parents, who want to be able to contact them or to track them via their mobile. Parents complain of intense peer pressure, making it a struggle to keep children off social media when all their friends are using an app.

Only a third of parents know the correct minimum age requirement for most social media platforms, Ofcom suggests.

Three in 10 parents are willing to let a five-to-seven year old have a social media profile even if it’s under the minimum age permitted for the app. The report suggests that parents may feel ‘resigned’ to being unable to control children's online lives.

Mark Buntin has sympathy for parents on this issue:: ‘It may not be about preventing use entirely for children under 13, which I think is very difficult in today's society. But parents can talk to their children about using those services safely.’

Meanwhile, Ofcom is consulting on the steps it expects tech firms to take to ensure children have safer experiences online, and later on new uses of AI to combat harmful content online.