Insights Ofcom finds that only one in six young people reports harmful content online


In recent research, Ofcom has found that two thirds of teens and young adults have recently encountered at least one potentially harmful piece of content online, but only around one in six goes on to report it.

The findings come as the Government’s Online Safety Bill continues to make its way through Parliament. Ofcom will enforce these new laws and has already started regulating video sharing platforms established in the UK, such as TikTok, Snapchat and Twitch.

To help galvanise more young internet users to report potentially harmful content, Ofcom has joined forces with social media influencer Lewis Leigh, and behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings, to launch a new campaign. The social media campaign aims to reach young people on the sites and apps they use regularly to highlight the importance of reporting posts they may find harmful.

Ofcom’s Online Experiences Tracker reveals that most younger people aged between 13 and 24 (65%) believe the overall benefits of being online outweigh the risks. However, around the same proportion (67%) have encountered potentially harmful content.

Younger people told Ofcom that the most common potential harms they came across online were: offensive or “bad” language (28%); misinformation (23%); scams, fraud and phishing (22%); unwelcome friend or follow requests (21%); and trolling (17%).

A significant number of young people (14%) also encountered: bullying, abusive behaviour and threats; violent content; and hateful, offensive or discriminatory content, targeted at a group or individual based on their specific characteristics.

But Ofcom says that its research reveals a worrying gap between the 67% of young people who experience harm online and those who flag or report it to the services. Fewer than one in five young people (17%) takes action to report potentially harmful content when they see it.

Younger participants say the main reason for not reporting is that they did not see the need to do anything (29%); while one in five (21%) do not think it will make a difference. Over one in ten (12%) say they do not know what to do, or whom to inform.

Ofcom says that user reporting is one important way to ensure more people are protected from harm online. For example, TikTok’s transparency report shows that of the 85.8 million pieces of content removed in Q4 2021, nearly 5% were removed as a result of users reporting or flagging content. In the same period, Instagram reported 43.8 million content removals, of which about 6.6% were removed as a result of users reporting or flagging content.

Ms Hemmings said that with young people spending so much of their time online, “the exposure to harmful content can unknowingly desensitise them to its hurtful impact”. She notes that people “react very differently when they see something harmful in real life, reporting it to the police or asking for help from a friend, parent or guardian, but often take very little action when they see the same thing in the virtual world”.

Ms Hemmings said that the research has made it clear that “while a potential harm experienced just once may have little negative impact, when experienced time and time again, these experiences can cause significant damage. Worryingly, nearly a third of 13-to-17-year-olds didn’t report potentially harmful content because they didn’t consider it bad enough to do something about. This risks a potentially serious issue going unchallenged”.

Ofcom’s new campaign aims to help address this lack of reporting. The campaign aims to show young people that, by taking a moment to stop, think and flag problematic content, rather than scrolling past, they can really make an important difference in helping to keep their online communities safer.

As part of its forthcoming role regulating online safety, Ofcom will have a range of powers to require change. Ofcom will be working with companies to help them understand their new obligations and what steps they need to take to protect their users from harm. This autumn Ofcom will publish its first annual report on how effectively video-sharing platforms are tackling harm on their services. To read Ofcom’s news release in full, click here.