Last reviewed 26 January 2021

Michael Evans looks at ways in which young people can be helped to steer a safe path for themselves through a potentially toxic online world.

Safer Internet Day

On Tuesday 9 February 2021, upwards of 130 countries across the globe will be celebrating the 18th Safer Internet Day. The international theme is: Together for a better internet, while the UK theme is: An internet we trust: exploring reliability in the online world. This is deliberately targeted at children and young people and is the biggest celebration of online safety in the UK, with a campaign focusing on helping young people to decide what is to be trusted online.

The growth of internet use

The internet has brought untold benefits to the world. According to government figures, UK use among adult age groups increased from 80.9% in 2012 to 90.8% in 2019. By April 2020, the average daily time spent online by UK internet users was just over four hours, more than a quarter of the average adult’s waking day.

Clearly, the coronavirus pandemic has radically changed the way that everyone lives, works and communicates online. Sites such as YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram have never been more popular. Ofcom reports that 90% of online adults and almost all children aged 8 to 15 used at least one of these websites and apps during the past year, often several times a day. The pandemic appears to have accelerated the adoption of online services to keep in touch with friends and family.

During the past year millions of people have begun to use online video services for the first time. A significant example is Zoom. In January 2020 Zoom had 659,000 internet users, but by April this number had risen to 13 million.

Misinformation, disinformation and hoxes

An unfortunate effect of this growth is that the internet has now become a hotbed for sites that promote misinformation, disinformation, or simple hoxes, particularly on social networking sites and apps.

To be clear, misinformation is the inadvertent sharing of false information, while disinformation is the deliberate creation of information that is intended to deceive and mislead.

Classic examples of misinformation have centred around the Covid-19 vaccine. A widely believed claim by so-called anti-vaxxers was that the vaccine contains animal products, which makes it unsuitable for a number of religious groups. This claim is manifestly untrue.

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, has accused anti-vaxxers of peddling deeply dangerous misinformation and pernicious propaganda. Although the number of anti-vaxxers is relatively small, many people have honest concerns about vaccination and are very susceptible to this misinformation, making them even more hesitant to accept it.

Concerns for children and young people

Navigating misleading information can have a significant emotional impact on young people and it is important to create a supportive, critical and questioning online culture that encourages debate and discussion.

When questioned, young people were quite clear about the type of content that bothers them.

  • Fake news content, fake celebrity gossip and fake gossip in general.

  • Adverts on webpages that show, for example, celebrities with extreme weight loss transformations, and similar misleading content.

  • Adverts and pop ups, messages from strangers, and conspiracy theories.

Fake news and other issues of misinformation have a significant impact on how young people feel about their time online. There is a clear need for them to be given the strategies and skills to spot and speak out against harmful and misleading online content. They need to learn to be able to separate fact from fiction and as their confidence continues to grow, they can then be helped to take the next steps towards the creation of an internet that is full of trustworthy and reliable information.

The internet is also a source of content that can have corrosive and damaging effects. While much of this falls short of amounting to a criminal offence, it can create toxic online environments. This type of activity can include online bullying and abuse, and the advocacy of self-harm. According to Ofcom, in 2019, during the previous 12 months 23% of 12 to15 year olds had experienced or seen bullying, abusive behaviour or threats on the internet.

Issues that cause concern and government action to deal with them

Although for many adults and children internet use can be a positive experience, 87% of adults and 79% of 8 to15 year olds have concerns about its use by children. Major concerns are bullying or trolling, age-inappropriate content and private messages from strangers.

Government figures indicate that in 2019, of the 260,000 reports by the Internet Watch Foundation, 132,730 contained images of children who were being sexually abused, 46% of which appeared to be of children under the age of 10. Between its launch in January 2015 and March 2019, 8.3 million images have been added to the Child Abuse Image Database.

Internet use by children has always been high, particularly during lockdown with the necessity of home schooling. During this time, according to government figures, 47% of children and teens have seen content that they wished they had not seen.

Terrorist groups also use the internet to spread propaganda that is designed to radicalise, recruit and inspire vulnerable people. It is also used to incite and provide information to enable and celebrate terrorist attacks. Proactive measures are now being taken by the larger platforms and between January and June 2019, Twitter took action against nearly 96,000 unique accounts that related to the promotion of terrorism or violent extremism.

These negative aspects of the internet are naturally of great concern, not only to the general public, but also to the government. Although many of the major social media companies have made swift technical changes to tackle disinformation and misinformation during the present pandemic, this has not been consistent in all areas.

The government has recently published its response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation. There are plans to introduce a new regulatory framework that will create incentives to ensure that companies take consistent and transparent action to keep their users safe. A legal duty of care will be established on social media sites, websites, apps and other services that host user-generated content or allow people to talk to others online. Illegal content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material and suicide content will need to be removed.

The important role of Safer Internet Day

This proposed government action is obviously good news, but in the meantime initiatives such as Safer Internet Day continue have an important role to play. The online world is a wonderful source of information for young people and adults alike. It provides opportunities for research, the learning of new facts and the broadening of viewpoints. It can enable young people to build positive relationships and to play, interact and share their lives with their peers.

Safer Internet Day helps young people to develop skills that will help them to make the best decisions as they navigate an online world where everything is not always what it seems to be.

Summary

  • The 18th Safer Internet Day: celebrated in the UK and around the world on Tuesday 9 February 2021.

  • The growth of internet use has coincided with the radical change in the way that everyone lives, works and communicates online following the advent of the coronavirus pandemic.

  • A major problem has been the increase in misinformation, disinformation and hoxes, particularly on popular social networking sites and apps.

  • The internet has many issues that are of particular concern to children and young people.

  • Although internet use can be a positive experience for many people, this is not always the case. The government proposes strict control of sites with illegal content and plans to introduce a new regulatory framework to address concerns that exist with respect to issues such as bullying, trolling, pornography, age-inappropriate content and terrorist propaganda.

  • Safer Internet Day aims to help young people to make appropriate decisions as they navigate an online world where everything is not always what it seems.

  • Safer Internet Day

  • Ofcom

  • Online Harms White Paper

  • The Internet Watch Foundation

  • Childnet International

  • South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL)