Social media safety ratings needed to protect children from online harm – report

A new study has suggested a five-star rating system should be applied to social media alongside compulsory age verification.

18 October 2022

An official five-star rating system for social media platforms to indicate how safe they are for children should be introduced to better protect young people online, a new report from criminal justice experts says.

The study from Crest Advisory, which began in 2019, recommends that alongside the rating system, compulsory age verification through a national system should be introduced, as should an alert system – run by a regulator – that would notify parents and others about threats on social media.

The report, entitled Fixing Neverland, says the measures are needed to break the link between social media and serious violence involving young people.

It says the rating system would help parents and carers make more informed decisions about whether to allow children to access certain sites.

It comes as the Government prepares to reintroduce the Online Safety Bill to Parliament, which will introduce major regulation to social media platforms for the first time – including requirements that they remove illegal content and protect users from other harmful material.

But the report says the Government and tech sector has a “collective blindspot” around the relationship between social media and youth violence, suggesting that young people were routinely being exposed to violent videos online and adverts for weapons, while social media also often amplified conflict and accelerated its route towards violence.

The study saw researchers work with Thames Valley Police’s violence reduction unit, and the parents of Olly Stephens, the 13-year-old from Reading who was stabbed to death following a dispute on social media.

Olly’s mother Amanda said the Government should consider the recommendations of the study becoming part of the Online Safety Bill.

“Our children live in an online world that means danger is close, it’s under your roof, it can attack them 24 hours a day, there is no respite from its harm,” she said.

“The Government should listen to the findings from this report when they bring back the Online Safety Bill. Social media companies must be held accountable for the safety of children using their apps.”

The report recommends the introduction of digital safer school teams, which would be led by police officers with the aim of deterring children from harmful uses of social media.

A public information campaign offering advice on healthy and unhealthy patterns of social media use, and online conflict resolution training for people who work with children were also among the recommendations.

Joe Caluori, head of research and policy at Crest Advisory, said: “Children and young people spend increasing amounts of time in unregulated, unsupervised online spaces which are accessible to them at ever younger ages.

“Many of the dangers and risks children face have migrated into these online spaces, hidden from the eyes of parents and carers, teachers, police or social workers.

“Our research shows that parents of primary school-aged children are unprepared for the risks their children face online, including petty spats which are allowed to escalate quickly, resulting in serious violence, causing life-changing injuries and even death, as in the tragic case of Olly Stephens.

“If the Government and law enforcement agencies are serious about taking a public health approach to violence reduction then the Online Safety Bill must directly address social media as a source of infection, laying down clear rules for tech companies and equipping the police, schools and children’s services with the resources and knowledge necessary to protect children from harm online.”

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