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In the AI of the storm: online content trends and internet safety

December 2023
 by Barney McCarthy

In the AI of the storm: online content trends and internet safety

December 2023
 By Barney McCarthy

One of the biggest changes in the way we use technology has been the increased online literacy evident among younger generations. Seeing children confidently navigating the internet is no longer the novelty it once was, but the latest research from the UK’s communications regulator regarding their online behaviours highlights just how far young people’s use and adoption of technology has advanced, while prompting some concerns about safety and misinformation.

Ofcom’s Online Nation report, published in November 2023, found that a staggering 79% of 13 to 17-year-olds have used generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools and services, with a further 40% of 7 to 12-year-olds also familiar with the technology. While ChatGPT remains the most widely-used of these tools among internet users aged over 16, Snapchat’s My AI is the tool of choice among children and early teens.

This statistic supports claims that younger generations are moving away from Google as the starting point for online searches. However, unlike Google, Snapchat’s FAQ page admits its tool’s responses may include “biased, incorrect, harmful or misleading content”. This raises questions about whether users are conducting the necessary due diligence before accepting Snapchat’s answers as the truth. And while the recent AI Safety Summit held at Bletchley Park and attended by 28 nations suggests that the problem of online misinformation is firmly on the radar of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, his pledge not to “rush to regulate the sector” indicates that there will still be a considerable need for the fact-checking of online content for the foreseeable future.

The widespread exposure to harmful content

In addition to the presence of online content that may not be factually correct, the Ofcom study also highlights potential issues with the suitability of the content that older children and teens are able to access online. While younger respondents were quick to say how they benefit from the internet in building and maintaining friendships and supporting their creativity, widespread circumvention of age controls potentially places them at increased risk of encountering harmful content online.

More than a fifth of the 8 to 17-year-olds questioned admitted to inputting a false user age of 18 or over in order to access certain age-restricted social media platforms, suggesting a need for tighter restrictions to avoid potential harm. Worryingly, almost three quarters of teenagers polled said they had encountered potential harms in the four weeks before they were surveyed, including unwelcome friend requests and content depicting animal cruelty or promoting self-harm.

Time is of the essence

The amount of time adults spend online also continues to trend upwards, according to the behavioural snapshot. While the daily average only equates to an additional eight minutes per day compared to the last annual survey in 2022, that adds up to an extra two days per individual per year, or an average of around 56 days each year.

This is perhaps surprising in two respects. Firstly, that internet use continues to increase despite all Covid restrictions (and subsequent limitations on face-to-face social interactions) coming to an end; and secondly, that the proliferation of online tools intended to make online searches and activity more efficient are not reducing the amount of time that people spend online.

Where people spend their time online is also starting to shift slightly. Ofcom’s research found that YouTube was visited by more UK online adults (91%) using smartphones, tablets or computers than Facebook (90.7%). A host of separate research indicating that TikTok has dethroned Google as the most popular website in the world further highlights subtle shifts in how people start – and continue – their online searches.

The ongoing popularity of smartphone apps will come as no surprise, but it may be news to some that it is those aged 25-44 who are the most frequent users, rather than the generation younger than them. Meta’s domination of this space remains intact, with WhatsApp, Facebook, Facebook Messenger and Instagram proving the most-visited smartphone apps.

A safer future

The Online Safety Act recently received Royal Assent, meaning it passed into law, theoretically making the UK one of the safest places from which to access the internet. The new regulations place legal responsibility on tech companies to prevent and rapidly remove illegal content, while also protecting children from seeing harmful material.

The introduction of the Act, which has been several years in the making, has been backed by a number of organisations including the Mental Health Foundation, the NSPCC, Refuge, and the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).

While undoubtedly a welcome step in the right direction, the formalisation of the new protections should be considered as the start of a new journey rather than the end of the process. Its success will hinge on a range of stakeholders ensuring all generations are kept safe when searching online.

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