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Children are ‘upset’ by online violence, study finds

Children are as upset by violent videos on YouTube that feature animal cruelty or beheadings and by insensitive Facebook messages from divorced parents as they are by online bullying and pornography, according to the biggest survey of young British people and their internet use.

The research will be unveiled by the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) on Tuesday – the 10th annual Safer Internet Day – when a charter of rights and responsibilities for children online will also be launched. The findings suggest that government policy, spearheaded by David Cameron, to block sexual content and pornography through parental controls and filters via internet service providers only goes part of the way to securing the online safety of children.

The survey, conducted for the council by academics, asked 24,000 children 25 questions about internet use, including “have you ever seen anything online that has upset you?” Hundreds of schools around Britain were enlisted to help canvass the children, who were aged up to 16.

Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility at Plymouth University, who helped to devise the report, said: “Upset is caused by a broad range of issues, very varied, and not all sexual content.” One memorable answer from a primary school child who was asked what most upset him was “when my Dad told me on Facebook he didn’t want to see me any more”.

The report, Have Your Say, is consistent with research Phippen was already carrying out. The examples he heard included: a video of a zebra being killed, “someone swearing at me”, “a picture of my baby brother, who I don’t live with any more”, and a picture of a cat that “looked like my pet that had to be put down”.

Phippen said: “There is no silver bullet to crack child safety online. Government’s obsession with filtering is OK, but too narrow.”

Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics, told the Oxford Media Convention last month that LSE research, which asked 8,000 children aged nine to 16 about the disturbing things they had seen on the internet, supported this picture. She added: “There is a lot of attention given to pornography and bullying on social media, but they also mentioned beheadings, flaying, cruelty to animals.”

Professor Phippen agreed: “Any channel used for communication is potentially a channel for upsetting content, but certainly YouTube is the most prevalent as far as video content is concerned.”

Livingstone said that the issue of online bullying was not covered by efforts to filter out inappropriate content. “Filtering is only about content on established websites”, while filtering and blocking controls could be very clunky to use and problematic.

However, Have Your Say also finds many positive aspects to the internet. The survey shows that what under-11s do most is play games on sites such as Moshi Monsters, followed by schoolwork and keeping in touch with friends. For older children, social networking takes over from playing games.

“I think, in this age group, violent images and upset from abusive nasty comments from their peers are the concerns. It is spoken about as so and so is so mean to me. Cyber bullying – they don’t use that term,” said Phippen. Evidence from the children of being groomed or facing predatory behaviour online is also scanty.

Accessing pornography online, the main concern of parents responding to a government consultation last autumn, did not feature highly in the teenagers’ responses. But there is a growing problem of “sexting” messages in school, when pupils share personal sexual content via smartphones and tablets. Phippen said one answer was better education. “You come back to media literacy. About understanding how to conduct yourself online and what the impact can be of behaviour, when you don’t see the impact of your behaviour, on the victim in front of you.”