In the online world the boundaries between strangers and friends are less obvious than in the offline world. It’s not always clear online if someone is a child or an adult, is male or female, or is even who they say they are.
NSPCC research published this week reveals children sometimes feel pressure to accept online friend requests from ‘randoms’. More than a third of the children polled had added someone online that they didn’t know in the last six months.
They told us that pressures from society and a desire to be popular drive some to “just accept random people and communicate with people they don’t know.” We also heard how “people you don’t know try to be your friend” and “anyone can say they are someone that you know or are your age.”
In the worse case scenario some of these ‘randoms’ will be adults whose tactics include bombarding numerous young people with unwanted friend requests or messages until they find a vulnerable victim who they can groom.
But others will be our children’s peers – other children they may have seen at school, a friend of a friend or someone they have never met in real life but have interacted with online, via a gaming forum or social media site for example.
We know from previous research that more than a fifth of children said a child or group of children only known to them online were responsible for an upsetting online experience they’d had. The thought that the person responsible for online harassment is another child can be very distressing. It can lead to feelings of isolation from their friendship group, not knowing who to trust and can damage a child’s confidence in the online space and the playground.
Clearly the negative experiences that young people experience online are not just related to those they haven’t met in real life, cyber-bullying among peers is a very real issue. However, the fact is when a child accepts a friend request from a stranger on social media or interacts with unknown people on a gaming platform they are, through no fault of their own, putting themselves at greater risk of abuse. Whether that is sexual abuse or exposure to inappropriate content, whether the person responsible is an adult or a child, the damage to the victim can be long-lasting.
The title of our Net Aware Report: “Freedom to express myself safely” says it all. Children love the internet and value the opportunities it gives them for fun, self-expression, communication and autonomy, but their enjoyment can be overshadowed by negative experiences. Children themselves are calling for the right to be free to explore their online spaces without fear of intimidation.
It’s currently far too easy to search for someone- including children – on social media platforms simply by using their email address or phone number. This must change.
An independent regulator set up by Government could ensure social media platforms offer safer accounts for under-18s with high privacy settings as default, location settings closed off, control over who follows you, and clear child-friendly rules and reporting buttons that are easy to find and use.
We hope the Government’s Internet Safety Strategy tackles these concerns head on to give children more control over who contacts them and confidence to interact online without fear of ‘randoms’.