Ofcom finds signs of responsible social media use among children

When it comes to social media, the kids might be alright, according to the latest research from UK comms regulator Ofcom.

Nick Wood

March 29, 2023

3 Min Read
Teenagers using smartphone apps

When it comes to social media, the kids might be alright, according to the latest research from UK comms regulator Ofcom.

It sounds counter-intuitive. Here in the UK, many teenage tragedies have been linked to self-harm material online. It is a serious enough issue that one of the main stated aims of the government’s Online Safety Bill is to make social media platforms responsible for removing illegal content. And that’s before you get to all the trolling, bullying, humiliation, and intimidation and general harassment that plagues online spaces.

Nonetheless, the overriding impression given by Ofcom’s annual Media Lives study – which looks at children’s and young adults’ relationship with media and the Internet – is that these groups are capable of using social media and online video responsibly. More responsibly than adults, in fact.

The watchdog found that 51 percent of social media users aged 16-24 were aware that they spent too much time using it, up from 42 percent in 2021. As a result, 36 percent of this group take deliberate breaks from social media, well above the average across the board of 25 percent. They are also more likely to delete (32 percent vs the average of 23 percent) social media apps altogether.

16-24-year-olds were also found to have a better track record of accessing content that has a positive impact on their lives (89 percent vs 78 percent of all online adults).

Sources of wellbeing include websites or apps designed to help with relaxation, improve mood, aid sleep, manage anxiety, follow a fitness programme or health-tracker, meditate, or feel energised. For each of these examples, Ofcom’s survey revealed older teens and young adults are more likely than average to consume this kind of content.

Ofcom also found signs that children are being careful about over-sharing on the Internet. While 96 percent of those surveyed watch user-generated videos, only 32 percent said they posted videos of their own.

“Correspondingly, children in the Media Lives study said they are seeing less content created by their friends, and even when they do see it, are interacting with it less. For these children, social interaction between friends online is now primarily confined to chat apps or message functions within apps, rather than on public feeds,” Ofcom said.

Despite how carefully they tread online, younger people are still the most avid users of social media and video. As mentioned above, 96 percent watch video online. When it comes to live streaming, it is watched by 58 percent of children and 80 percent of 16-17-year-olds. YouTube is still the most popular app, with 88 percent of 3-17-year-olds using it regularly. Meanwhile, 53 percent use TikTok and 46 percent use Snapchat. Ofcom characterises a lot of the content being accessed as “dramatic” and designed to grab and hold attention.

“Gossip, conflict, controversy, extreme challenges and high stakes – often involving large sums of money – are recurring themes. ‘Commentary’ and ‘reaction’ video formats, particularly those stirring up rivalry between influencers while encouraging viewers to pick sides, were also appealing to participants,” Ofcom said.

“These videos, popularised by the likes of Mr Beast, Infinite and JackSucksAtStuff, are often short-form, with a distinct, stimulating, editing style, designed to create maximum dramatic effect. This involves heavy use of choppy, ‘jump-cut’ edits, rapidly changing camera angles, special effects, animations and fast-paced speech.”

Content like this is easy to attack as being low-brow and damaging to children and young adults. However, the survey suggests that the majority of this group is able to balance their enjoyment of ‘real-life’ online drama with content that promises to boost health and wellbeing. And if necessary, some of them seem quite happy to take a break from it altogether.

Some of the older folks – particularly those working in politics and the media – could learn a thing or two from this.


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About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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