Are online safety tools giving us false hope?
18 Aug, 2023
3 minute read

Are online safety tools giving us false hope?

The Online Safety Bill should mean user-led safety tools will have a greater role to play in how we go online. 

It's widely hoped they will make digital safer for families. However, they’re far from a perfect solution.

In our new report, we raise concerns about the effectiveness of user-led safety tools.

Too many tools

Most mainstream online platforms have safety tools. Things like parental controls should make life easier for parents. The problem is that despite being widely available, they can be hard to find, understand or activate.

For our research, we reviewed Google search, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube, YouTube Kids and WhatsApp.

On each platform, it took us an average of 79 minutes to activate all the safety tools available. Facebook and Instagram alone have 61 user-led safety tools between them. To make matters worse, 29% of the tools we evaluated had changed in the last 12 months.

Do they even work?

We’d like to assume that these tools – once set-up – are actually effective at keeping users safe. But tools don't have a great track record.

Research by Aarhus University, UCL and MIT found that 88.2% of cookie pop-ups on the UK's top 100,000 websites don't comply with law. Users' choices aren’t actually being honoured.

A number of studies of parental control tools have also found that their effects are either neutral (because children can get around them) or negative (causing family conflict and a breakdown of trust).

Children’s data and privacy

There is also the question of children's data. 

In order for platforms to know what sorts of features and content should be available to a specific user, the platform first has to determine just how old that user is. 

In short, platforms will have to collect data from both children and adults.

But this leads us to further questions. What happens to all this data? Where is it stored? How exactly will it be used? And will users be able to see what personal information has been collected by platforms?

Our recommendations

We believe safety tools have some use when it comes to minimising harm. But they’re nowhere near a complete solution.

The effectiveness of parental safety tools depends on how parents use them. This comes down to parental styles and levels of media literacy.

Tools need to be accessible and easy to understand. They need to be consistent, and recognisable to users across various platforms. They should be seen to work (fostering trust).

They also need to be co-designed with adults and children, so that they don't erode children's rights: rights to participate online, to education, information, to play. And they need to respect a child's increasing maturity. A 13-year-old is not the same as an 18-year-old.

Finally, there needs to be discussion about children's data once the Online Safety Bill becomes law. Data collection needs to be minimised, used responsibly and with transparency.

You can read the report in full, here.


More of Parent Zone's research