Growing up with the internet Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction

Our inquiry

1.We live in a digital age. The internet is not just something children access when they want certain bits of information, it is an essential and intrinsic part of the world they inhabit—it is not an exaggeration to say that to take away a young person’s phone feels to them like removing a limb. We rejoice at the new opportunities for knowledge, creativity and community that this brings, but we yearn for the wisdom that will enable the internet to be a safe and fairly regulated place where all users, and especially children and young people can flourish.

2.The internet has a ubiquitous influence in our lives. United Nations (UN) research has estimated that 3.5 billion people (47 per cent of the world population)1 use the internet globally. One third are under 18. As a society we need to embrace innovations that are exciting and can transform children’s opportunities. At the same time, we have a duty to consider children’s best interests in this rapidly changing world.

3.The question of children and the internet cannot be viewed in isolation from the changing nature of society and the future workplace where automation and ‘digital by default’ are increasingly the new norm. It will be essential for every child in the UK to participate in society, and to have the necessary skills to be fully 21st century citizens.

4.Our inquiry did not set out to identify and weigh up the relative advantages and disadvantages of the internet. Rather, we considered what skills they might need and what impact the internet has on children’s development, wellbeing and mental health. We also considered what rights children enjoy online, and what impediments there are to these. To this end, we consulted with a broad group of stakeholders and sought the views of young people.2

5.We are grateful to all those who contributed to this report. We are also especially grateful to Professor Marina Jirotka of the University of Oxford and Professor Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics and Political Science for their expert advice throughout the course of our inquiry.


6.Those born from around 2000 onwards are often referred to as ‘digital natives’. They have grown up in a world where user-friendly digital technology surrounds them, which they can learn to use intuitively.3

7.Vicki Shotbolt of the charity Parent Zone told us that the use of devices by young children was so commonplace that she had seen an increase in queries from parents “about tech tantrums: about much younger children for whom the device has become the thing that causes the big arguments. It used to be vegetables but not anymore; it is taking the device away.”4

8.Baroness Shields, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security, told the Committee that:

“Society is evolving in a way in which it has never evolved before. It is almost the largest social experiment in history. We have never had this much change in such a short period of time”.5

Figure 1: Time online

Figure 1 Time online

Ofcom, Children and parents media use and attitudes report (16 November 2016)

Base: Parents of children aged 3-7 who use the internet at home or elsewhere and children aged 8-15 who use the internet at home or elsewhere (VARIABLE BASE) - Significance testing shows any change between 2015 and 2016

9.The Children’s Commissioner told the Committee that “For most children there is no longer a clear distinction between their online and offline lives.”6

10.Barnardo’s, a children’s charity, agreed that the “sheer scope of the internet and its ubiquity means … that today’s children increasingly may not even distinguish ‘the internet’ as one holistic defined arena that can contrast to physical life.” It believed that many young people are “conceptualising individual platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp, or Snapchat as different spaces in their life in the way previous generations might have identified ‘school’, ‘scouts’ or ‘dance class’.”7

11.Evidence provided to the Committee from a child’s perspective demonstrated the wide range of activities that children do online:

“We can use the internet not only for educational purposes but for finding out new words. Occasionally playing games. You can get answers almost instantly without having to give yourself numerous papercuts flipping through heavy books. You can communicate with other people and send pictures of something funny your pet did.”8

12.In this environment children are adopting recently innovated technology before policy makers, schools or parents consider or understand the implications of such technology.

13.Vicki Shotbolt criticised the use of the term “digital natives” because “it makes parents feel immediately disempowered.”9 This term could also be contributing to a sense of inevitability in which policy makers feel that nothing can or should be done to address the situation.

14.Over recent years, concerns about children’s use of the internet have centred on areas such as cyberbullying and access to unsuitable content, but there are other emerging areas of concern. 10 Parent Zone told us that parents regularly worry about “the commercialisation of childhood, the wholesale capturing of children’s data and excessive screen time”.11 Our witnesses also highlighted concern about the lack of regulation, the need to protect children’s rights and the importance of encouraging online parenting.

15.Some witnesses believed that, fundamentally, the internet does not take sufficient account of children and the fact that their needs are different to those of adults.12 Still less does the internet recognise differences among children according to their age and maturity, life circumstances and resources.

16.Barnardo’s told us that a failure to consult childhood experts when developing technology “can lead to a narrow perception of children as ‘rational consumers’ rather than emerging human beings whose understanding may lead them to misuse internet technology.”13

17.In other areas of life there are laws and regulations in place to protect children. Witnesses suggested that this is not the case with the internet. John Carr, Chair of the Children’s Charities Coalition on Internet Safety, told the Committee:

“Young people are easily the biggest single distinguishable or definable constituent group of internet users. You would not know that if you looked at the internet governance institutions. They are pretty much massively overlooked and disregarded, and it is a fault of governance institutions, fundamentally.”14

18.The adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 marked an important milestone in the development of an international framework of rights for children and young people. It is the most widely adopted multilateral treaty in history15 (see Box 1).

Box 1: The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)

The United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child is based on the principle that every child has rights, whatever their ethnicity, gender, religion, language, abilities or any other status. The Convention has 54 articles that cover all aspects of a child’s life and set out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all children everywhere are entitled to. It also explains how adults and governments must work together to make sure all children can enjoy all their rights. The UK signed it in 1990, and it came into UK law in 1992.

Four articles in the Convention, known as the “General Principles”, have a special role in helping to interpret all the other articles and play a fundamental role in realising all the rights in the Convention for all children. They are:

(1)Non-discrimination (article 2)

(2)Best interest of the child (article 3)

(3)Right to life survival and development (article 6)

(4)Right to be heard (article 12)

A further list of Articles that are relevant to digital media are listed in Appendix 5.

Source: UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

19.However, some have criticised the lack of the implementation of the UNCRC in respect of the internet. For example, 5Rights, an organisation which campaigns to promote children’s rights online, said:

“Age makes children and young people vulnerable … [yet] we do not observe children’s rights in the digital world. Rights that protect them from commercial exploitation, offer the highest standards in wellbeing and education. Rights that protect them from violence and harm, and give them privacy.”16

20.Some of our witnesses also pointed out that improvements in the design of technology will be the key to improving the internet for children. As Baroness Shields told us: “Technology is what got us here. I believe that it is also what can help to solve these problems, but it takes co-operation and Governments raising the issue.”17

Stages of childhood

21.The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a US federal law which was designed primarily with the data protection of the under–13s in mind. John Carr explained that, as most of the social media platforms are American companies, “they are required to make a distinction between persons below the age of 13 and persons above the age of 13, and then up to 18”.18

22.But, as the BBC observed, using the term ‘children’ suggests “a single group of users with similar needs. However … children’s developmental, emotional and social needs change dramatically as they get older.”19

23.Ofcom research shows clear differences in the devices that age groups use:

“When asked which device they would miss the most if it was taken away, 12-15s are most likely to say their phone, while 8-11s are most likely to nominate the TV set (30%), although the number of 8-11s opting for their mobile has nearly doubled since 2015 (16% vs. 9%).”20

24.There are also differences in the type of content that children consume. Ofcom research shows that in the case of YouTube:

“Younger children (3-7) are most likely to watch TV programmes, films, cartoons, mini-movies, animations or songs, with parents saying this is their child’s favourite type of YouTube content. As children get older this makes way for music videos, funny videos/ pranks and content posted by vloggers, with the qualitative research finding that vloggers in particular are an important source of teen orientated content.”21

25.This development through the age groups is also reflected in the way that parents manage their children’s internet use.22

26.Google said that it recognised that teenagers have a different status, saying: “We … make sure that we respect people’s data related to different age groups. We have different priorities for people aged 13 to 18 who use our services and a different approach to advertisement in the way their data is held. We make sure that all data, whatever the age of the user, is never sold or passed to third parties; it always stays within Google.”23 It is not clear, however, to what extent such policies are reflected in practice, not least because the difficulty—or lack of effort taken—in identifying users as children.24

27.Moreover, some witnesses were concerned that there were not sufficiently granular policies in place to protect those above 13. John Carr noted that:

“In so far as we have laws around these things, people under the age of 13 are regarded as children, and there would be a whole raft of things that you would expect to apply in respect of them. But between the ages of 13 and 18 they are all lumped together in one chunk, and, again, similar policies would be applied to them. I am not sure that is a very good approach, because between the ages of, essentially, 12 and 18 children do a lot of growing up.”25

28.BT argued that more research was needed: “There is a need for ongoing research to understand how children of different age groups, e.g., five-year olds as opposed to fifteen-year olds, are using the internet in order to develop evidence-based policy.”26

29.Dr Nihara Krause, a clinical psychologist and founder of stem4,27 provided an overview of the different stages of childhood:

“When children are very little, you would be working on issues around attachment and trust. As they get a little older, you would expect issues around emotional regulation, learning about give and take in relationships, learning about boundaries and, through that, how they might place boundaries on their own behaviour. That is up to about the age of five.”28

30.Alice Webb observed the progression as children get older:

“At about five to seven they are moving on into the next level of interaction and are playing slightly more complex games. Children at that stage want to start to learn things, to repeat things. With that we see that the learning side of things gets more complicated as they move up, because they move from learning a skill to mastering a skill.”29

31.Dr Krause described the development from the age of six to 12. She said:

“There is a very rapid change in children’s understanding of themselves and the world. They start to think more about morals: for example, what is good and bad; they start to separate what is real and unreal; and they start to think more about cause and effect, so the consequences of their behaviour start to become more apparent to them. Of course, there will be the beginnings of very strong identity formation, and that will happen through testing out a variety of different types of identity.”30

32.Dr Krause told the Committee that it is in:

“Adolescence when there is the most rapid growth in becoming independent, autonomous, starting to think very clearly about what roles they might like to take, what sort of person they might be and how they connect socially, and their responses to other people and how other people in turn affect them. That enables them to think clearly about how they relate to peers and adults.”31

Dr Marc Bush also asked us to recognise “the impulsive nature of later childhood and early adulthood.”32

Devices and services used by children

33.The devices we use to access the internet have changed dramatically in the last few years, from a single family PC, often in a communal area of the house, to individual portable devices such as smart phones and tablets that children can carry with them at all times. As the BBC told the Committee, “Children use multiple devices [used] to access digital services and can connect from their home network, school, friends’ houses, or by using public Wi-Fi and mobile networks.”33

34.Publicly accessible Wi-Fi has increased to cover places such as cafes, libraries and other public places. The European Commission has now proposed “to equip every European village and every city with free wireless internet access around the main centres of public life by 2020.”34

Figure 2: Devices used by children

Figure 2 Devices used by children

Source: Ofcom, Children and parents media use and attitudes report (16 November 2016)

Base: Parents whose child ever goes online aged 3-4 (272) or 5-15 (1172 aged 5-15, 264 aged 5-7, 445 aged 8-11, 463 aged 12-15). Significance testing shows any change between 2015 and 2016.

35.Ofcom said that:

“Since 2015 there have been increases in the numbers of 5-15s who say that a tablet or a mobile phone is the device they use most often to go online (39% vs. 33% for tablets and 28% vs. 19% for mobile phones). As a result, the mobile phone is now the second most popular device to go online (after tablets), overtaking laptops which were the second most popular device in 2015.”

36.Furthermore, children at increasingly young ages are accessing portable devices, which can make it harder for parents or carers to monitor activity.

37.With respect to online services, Parent Zone claimed that children used “all of the internet”:

“This includes familiar names like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, but it also includes places that fewer adults understand, including services like Putlocker, a site that facilitates free streaming of movies and TV programmes, and VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) that facilitate anonymous surfing and, more crucially for young people, the ability to bypass filters.”35

38.Group chat services that are used to connect with family and friends, including Snapchat, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram, have increased in popularity. Facebook is the most popular main social media profile with 8-11s and 12-15s. This is unchanged since 2015 but has fallen considerably since 2013, when 87% of 12-15s considered Facebook their main site.36 Snapchat has seen an increase from the 12-15 age groups to 51%, up from 43% in 2015, while use of Twitter has fallen by 7% to 20%.37 The BBC told the Committee that “Snapchat is for their friends and they don’t have large networks on here, it is fast paced and funny. Instagram is where they curate their online personas and they can spend hours creating the perfect selfie.”38

39.It is increasingly a norm for a child to have a social media presence and the likelihood of having a social media profile increases with age. Ofcom research states that:

“0% of 3-4s, 3% of 5-7s, 23% of 8-11s and 72% of 12-15s have a profile … The biggest increase comes between ages 10 and 11, when the number with a profile doubles from 21% to 43%, and there is another sharp increase between 12 and 13, from 50% to 74%.”

40.The increase at age 11 corresponds to the start of secondary school. This has led some to observe a change in some of the ways in which children interact with their peers in comparison with previous generations. Research has “found that ‘likes’ on social media were important ‘social currency’, with children saying they would remove posts if they didn’t quickly receive what they considered to be an acceptable number.”39

41.Playing games online is also now a norm in a child’s life. Internet Matters cited research from the Childwise Monitor which shows that gaming apps are the “most used by 7–16 year olds, with Minecraft being popular amongst 7–10s.”40

42.Ofcom noted that some games “offered considerable scope for creativity, particularly Minecraft which many of the children played in ‘creative mode’, engaging in extensive design and construction.”41

43.The launch of Pokémon Go in 2015 has been credited with inspiring many to take to the streets. This ‘Augmented Reality’ (AR) which “effectively merge(s) the real world with the digital world”42 primarily for gaming purposes, is seen as the future of gaming.

44.We also noted that there is a difference in the types of games played by boys and girls. Dr Bush told the Committee:

“Boys tend to use massively multiplayer online games—MMOs—or first-person shooter games, which are very much about participating in questing, adventures or military operations. Girls tend to be involved in role-playing games, which are more about fantasy and sci-fi, and are more likely to use games on their mobile phones.”43

45.Children also use the internet as a source of information. 78% of all 8-11s and 88% of all 12-15s who go online said that they used search engines, according to Ofcom research:

“While the BBC website remains the preferred source of ‘true and accurate information about things that are going on in the world’ for 12-15s who go online (35%), this has declined substantially since 2015 (52%). Instead, children are more likely to say they would turn to Google for this (30% vs. 17% in 2015).”44

46.The internet not only provides an unprecedented range of information, but also interactive experiences for children to learn.45 Ofcom gives the example of a 10-year-old girl learning Arabic via Skype.46 Will Gardner of Childnet emphasised the advantage of being able to communicate within social groups. He also suggested that it can be “a great source of support and advice even for young people for a range of different topics with information that they might not want to ask trusted adults about”.47

47.The internet allows children to explore intimate aspects of life. A 2013 survey found that, “while the majority of girls and young women aged 11 to 21 still get information about relationships and sex from talking to friends (63%) and from sex education lessons at school, 35% turned to the internet as a source of information and advice. For older girls aged 16 to 21 the internet was even more important, with 49% getting information about sex and relationships online.”48

48.Some of our witnesses highlighted the potential for the internet to be an avenue for political engagement for children. In particular, YouthLink Scotland told us: “Social media provides a platform for young people to express their opinions and be heard. It is narrowing the traditional generational gap of whose voices are heard in decision making.”49

49.A 2015 survey conducted by Girlguiding UK supported this. It found that “of girls aged 11 to 21, 25% say they share campaigns they care about on social media and 30% sign online petitions.”50

50.However, Ofcom also told the Committee that the children who participated in their qualitative research “had limited understanding of how search engines work, with most assuming that the results they saw were selected by some kind of authoritative figure, possibly employed by Google, who selected the ones which were most accurate.”51

1 ‘Nearly 47 per cent of global population now online - UN report’, UN News Centre (15 September 2016): [accessed 3 March 2017]

2 See Appendix 7.

3 Q 113 (Dr Akil Awan)

4 Q 23 (Vicki Shotbolt)

5 Q 133 (Baroness Shields OBE)

6 Written evidence from the Children’s Commissioner for England (CHI0028)

7 Written evidence from Barnardo’s (CHI0013)

8 Written evidence from Poppy Morgan (CHI0035)

9 Q 25 (Vicki Shotbolt)

10 Content may take the form of text, images, music or sound, games, video, or animation.

11 Written evidence from Parent Zone (CHI0011)

12 For example, written evidence from Children’s Media Foundation (CHI0027).

13 Written evidence from Barnardo’s (CHI0013)

14 Q 5 (John Carr). See Appendix 3 for a table of policy responses which vary depending on whether the child is online or offline.

15 UN News Centre, UN lauds Somalia as country ratifies landmark children’s rights treaty (4 May 2015) [date accessed 1 March 2017]

16 5Rights, [accessed 24 January 2017]

17 133 (Baroness Shields OBE)

18 Q 5 (John Carr OBE)

19 Written evidence from the BBC (CHI0053)

20 Ofcom, Children’s and parents media use and attitudes: executive summary (16 November 2016) [accessed 24 January 2017]

21 Ofcom, Children’s and parents media use and attitudes: executive summary (16 November 2016) [accessed 24 January 2017]

22 Written evidence from Children’s Media Foundation (CHI0027)

23 Q 118 (Katie O’Donovan)

24 Written evidence from BT (CHI0020)

25 5 (John Carr OBE)

26 Written evidence from BT (CHI0020)

27 A charity set up to increase awareness and reduce stigma around mental ill health in teenagers.

28 Q 98 (Dr Nihara Krause)

29 Q 74 (Alice Webb)

30 98 (Dr Nihara Krause)

31 Q 98 (Dr Nihara Krause)

32 Q 98 (Dr Marc Bush)

33 Written evidence from the BBC (CHI0053)

34 BBC News, European Commission plans free Wi-Fi in public spaces (14 September 2016) [accessed 24 January 2017]

35 Written evidence from Parent Zone (CHI0011)

36 Ofcom, Children and parents media use and attitudes report (16 November 2016) [accessed 24 January 2017]

37 Ofcom, Children and parents media use and attitudes report (16 November 2016) [accessed 24 January 2017]

38 Written evidence from the BBC (CHI0053)

39 Ofcom, Children and parents media use and attitudes report (16 November 2016) [accessed 24 January 2017]

40 Written evidence from Internet Matters (CHI0040)

41 Written evidence from Ofcom (CHI0051), (CHI0060)

42 Written evidence from Internet Matters (CHI0040)

43 Q 101 (Dr Marc Bush)

44 Ofcom, Children’s and parents’ media use and attitudes: executive summary (3 February 2017): [accessed 2 March 2017]

45 Q 2 (John Carr OBE)

46 Written evidence from Ofcom (CHI0051), (CHI0060)

47 Q 2 (Will Gardner)

48 Written evidence from Girlguiding (CHI0026)

49 Written evidence from YouthLink Scotland (CHI0006)

50 Written evidence from Girlguiding (CHI0026)

51 Ofcom, Children and parents media use and attitudes report (16 November 2016) [accessed 24 January 2017]

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