Youngsters are being left to fend for themselves on the internet against dangers such as bullying and grooming, a report has said.
The Children’s Commissioner for England said children did not know how to deal with common problems they found online.
Anne Longfield called for new laws to protect children’s online privacy and data and for a digital ombudsman to be created to uphold their rights.
The government said children were taught about online safety in schools.
The children’s commissioner’s Growing Up Digital report said children were being “left to learn about the internet on their own with parents vainly hoping that they will benefit from its opportunities while avoiding its pitfalls”.
Ms Longfield said: “The internet is an incredible force for good, but it is wholly irresponsible to let them roam in a world for which they are ill-prepared, which is subject to limited regulation and which is controlled by a small number of powerful organisations.”
Her report recommended that:
- Children should study “digital citizenship” to learn about their rights and responsibilities online, so they are prepared for online activities
- Social media companies should rewrite their “impenetrable” terms and conditions in far simpler language so children know what they are agreeing to
- Ministers should create a “digital ombudsman” to mediate for children seeking the removal of content
Ms Longfield said: “It is critical that children are educated better so that they can enjoy the opportunities provided by the internet whilst minimising the well-known risks.
“It is also vital that children understand what they agree to when joining social media platforms, that their privacy is better protected, and they can have content posted about them removed quickly should they wish to.”
The report said children were agreeing to “impenetrable” terms and conditions they could never understand when using social media.
It said small print often contained “hidden clauses” waiving privacy rights and allowing content children posted to be sold.
‘Give them power’
Ms Longfield told Radio 4’s Today the internet was not designed for children even though they are now the biggest users.
“Parents are always going to be on a losing battle which is why we need to take greater action to shift the balance of power towards children,” she added.
Ms Longfield told the programme it was about recognising the significant amount of time children are spending on the internet and introducing new support.
She said the support needed to build their resilience, help them get better information and “give them power and recourse if things go wrong”.
Children are signing away their privacy and finding terms and conditions “bewildering”, Ms Longfield added while calling for the social media industry to be more transparent.
“This is about helping children navigate this world, they have got all sorts of rights that we have signed up to in the physical world. It is now time to sign up to those in the digital world.”
Online and offline lessons
Founder of Parent Zone, Vicki Shotbolt, said it was about social skills and being savvy – all of those lessons you teach your kids about being offline.
“You just need to apply those lessons online as well,” she said.
“The risk is all that data is going somewhere. Young people are telling services a great deal … they are telling their friends where they are, what they are doing, where they go to school, but you are building up this massive history for yourself,” she told BBC Breakfast.
Ms Shotbolt questioned who was looking after the rights and interests of children online and added that an ombudsman would be the “busiest person in Britain” because they would be inundated with queries.
The study tested teenagers’ ability to understand the terms and conditions of photo-sharing website Instagram, which it says is used by 56% of 12 to 15-year-olds and 43% of eight to 11-year-olds.
The report said: “Younger ones were unable to read more than half of the 17 pages of text, which run to 5,000 words, and none understood fully what the terms and conditions committed them to.
“An expert in privacy law on the Growing Up Digital panel simplified, demystified and condensed the terms and conditions so that they were comprehensible to teenagers, leaving many of them shocked by what they had unwittingly signed up to.”
Javed Khan, chief executive of children’s charity Barnardo’s, said: “This report provides further worrying evidence of how children are unprepared to deal with life online and receive little help in dealing with cyber-bullying, ‘sexting’ and harassment.”
A government spokesman said the UK was a “world leader in internet safety”, but accepted there was more to do adding that it would consider the report’s findings.
He said: “The internet has given children and young people fantastic opportunities, but protecting them from risks they might face online or on their phones is vital.”
He added that children in primary schools were taught how to use technology safely, respectfully and responsibly, including how to keep personal information private.
The department added that it was investing £4.5m in supporting teachers to deliver the new computing curriculum, which includes e-safety.
Social media companies have to have robust processes in place to address inappropriate and abusive content on their sites, and they are expected to respond quickly to incidents of abusive behaviour on their networks