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2021 in digital: 12 moments that mattered

From landmark safety legislation to NFTs and the metaverse, 2021 was a big year in tech. 

We take a look back at 12 stories (plus a few extras) that shaped the digital landscape for families over the past 12 months. 

1. The WhatsApp exodus

In January, Whatsapp saw millions of users flock to different apps following confusion around an update to their terms of service. Concerns the update would allow the platform to read users’ private messages – with data shared with Facebook – were unfounded. Despite a clarification from the platform, many former users still chose to stay away. Meanwhile, as the UK went back into lockdown, Parent Zone broadcast a new Remote Schooling SOS show – with expert advice and resources for home-schooling parents. You can rewatch the series here.

2. Uncovering the truth about OnlyFans 

In March, youth site VoiceBox released a report into OnlyFans – the fast-growing ‘subscription social network’. The research centred on the platform’s high proportion of sexually explicit content – and the impact of the subscriber/tipping culture on its 90million+ creators and (sometimes underage) users. The report uncovered a complex environment offering both opportunities (empowerment and financial) and harms (addiction, problematic sexual narratives and the grooming of under-18s). You can read the report here – along with a 2021 VoiceBox report into the wellbeing of young people online

3. A ‘heroic generation’ have their say

In April, the Children’s Commissioner’s office surveyed young people across the UK as part of The Big Ask. The first of its kind, the survey reached over a million children aged four to 17 to discover their concerns, wellbeing and aspirations. 

The results revealed the nation’s children and young people to be caring, perceptive, positive about the future and eager to support their peers. Over half said good mental health was a core future aspiration, while 95% said they were happy with their online lives – more so than with their offline lives. As the Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, put it, this was “not a ‘snowflake’ generation [but] a heroic generation.”

4. Online Safety Bill misses the basics

In May, the government published the draft Online Safety Bill – a landmark piece of legislation aiming to make the UK the 'safest place in the world to go online'. Focusing user-generated content, the 193-page bill proposed complex (and occasionally abstract) measures to tackle issues such as online grooming, radicalisation, disinformation, hate speech and child abuse images. But despite these positive intentions, we pointed out several missed opportunities – including age verification for pornography, the regulation of online games and a duty of care to protect children at immediate risk. You can read our full response to the draft Bill here. 

5. The rise of cryptocurrency

In June, the president of El Salvador announced that the country would recognise the cryptocurrency Bitcoin as legal tender. The move was part of an effort to boost El Salvador’s economy by making it easier for expatriates to put money back into the country. While the news signified the growing presence of crypto in modern culture, critics pointed out that the volatility of Bitcoin made it an unstable choice. It was later announced that El Salvadorans would each receive a Bitcoin wallet to support usage, while the government also plans to build a ‘Bitcoin City’ funded by the cryptocurrency. You can read our guide to crypto – and what parents need to know – here

6. Media literacy in focus, Bezos in space

In July, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced their Online Media Literacy Strategy – aiming to help everyone develop the tools necessary to thrive in the digital age – and supporting organisations, like ours, who are working in this area. It centred on five key principles and skills – including protecting  personal data, analysing online environments and content, and wider behaviours. We welcomed the strategy, while awaiting further details about how it might be implemented in tandem with the Online Safety Bill. 

Also that month, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos launched his first successful commercial space flight. (Before you ‘add to basket’, a ticket to join this 10-minute trip auctioned for $28 million…)

7. OnlyFans U-turn on sexual explicit content

In August, OnlyFans announced it would ban all sexually explicit content – only to pivot days later. CEO and co-founder Tim Stokely explained that pressure from financial backers had forced the decision, but later reneged following a backlash from creators and users alike. One adult sex worker warned that banning sexually explicit content on the £750 million-valued platform would put her community, “on the street [and] starve the children [they] could otherwise afford to feed.”

8. A new code to protect children’s data

In September, The Children’s Code – or to give it its full name, the Age-Appropriate Design Code – came into effect as part of the 2018 Data Protection Act. The code requires all online platforms to adhere to 15 standards where there is a possibility a child could gain access – regardless of where the platform is based, or who their target audience is. In preceding months, social media like TokTok updated their default privacy settings, in order to comply with the new regulations. The code also outlaws ‘nudge’ techniques that push children into relaxing their privacy settings, and requires all language around data collection must also be presented in a clear way for children to understand. You can read our guide to the Children’s Code here

9. Ollee the app launches Digital Parenting Week

In October, we hosted Digital Parenting Week, this year celebrating digital wellbeing. During the week, our virtual friend for 8-to-11 year-olds Ollee was launched in app stores – making it easier for children and parents to access emotional support and advice on the go. Over 700 schools and organisations took part in Digital Parenting Week – including live events and activities such as a seven-day digital wellbeing challenge.

10. Under-fire Facebook turn to the metaverse

In late October, the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen gave a testimony to congress – accusing Facebook of being aware their algorithms prioritised engagement over teens' wellbeing. Haugen called for tech companies to be subject to a stricter, independent regulatory body. 

By early November, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the parent company would be rebranded as ‘Meta’. The move reflected the company’s path towards a ‘metaverse’ business model of immersive virtual experiences. You can read Parent Zone’s article on the metaverse here

11.  Non-fungible tokens take over

Also in November, the Collins Dictionary announced its word of the year for 2021 was NFT, or ‘non-fungible token’ – joining ‘crypto’ and ‘metaverse’ on its new words list. NFTs are pieces of encrypted data that are irreplaceable and copyrighted, ranging from simple memes to digital real estate and even luxury virtual yachts. Earlier this year, an artist known as Beeple sold an NFT, Everydays: the first 5000 days, for $69 million at Christie’s auction house. You can read Parent Zone’s guide to NFTs here.

12. Online Safety Bill report pinpoints pornography

In December, the parliamentary pre-legislative committee report on the Online Safety Bill was published – outlining major amends to make it more robustly applicable to more online harms and platforms. 

It was encouraging to see commercial pornography in the spotlight, as we called for, although online gaming was left widely out of scope of the bill – while the role of parents was generally ignored. You can read more about our response to the report – for which a new draft is due to appear in March 2022.