Girl using VR headset

Children spend more time online than in the real world

Image credit: Getty Images

Over half of 5-13 year-olds spend the majority of their recreational time online, a new study by the Institution of Engineering and Technology has revealed.

The IET polled 1,000 parents whose children belong to Generation Alpha (children born after 2010), finding that 57 per cent of them spend the majority of their free time on online platforms, equating to one whole day (23 hours) every week. 

This figure is even higher when looking at 12 and 13-year-olds, of which 67 and 66 per cent spend most of their recreational time online. 

The research also highlighted the increasing amount of time that Generation Alpha children spend exploring virtual reality (VR) technology. According to the parents, two-thirds (66 per cent) of children have now used VR and a quarter (25 per cent) do so every week.

These percentages show a rise in the popularity of the technology, with kids’ engagement with VR growing by 320 per cent in the past year alone, from 15 per cent in 2022. As a result, the IET predicts that Generation Alpha will spend more than a decade of their lives in VR.

Girl using VR headset

Girl using VR headset / Shutterstock

Image credit: Shutterstock

The publication of the report follows efforts by the government to regulate online environments through the Online Safety Bill, presented as a ground-breaking law that will target online racism, sexual abuse, bullying, fraud and other harmful material often found on the internet. 

Nonetheless, the IET has warned that the legislation fails to take into account the potential dangers of technological advances such as VR and the metaverse, which are expected to affect children's development in the not-so-distant future. 

The Institution's research showed that 81 per cent of parents believe technology can be a great educational resource. However, the survey's results also demonstrated the existence of a disconnect between parents' and children's knowledge of the metaverse. 

When asked how often they felt kids could be exposed to abuse in popular online virtual world platform, VRchat, a third (32 per cent) answered rarely or not very often – but in reality, researchers recorded an abusive incident every 7 minutes over the course of 11 hours.

“Today’s children are experiencing life in a way that is very different from that of their parents’ and caregivers’ youth," said Catherine Allen, a member of the IET’s Digital Policy Panel. "It is vital that those in positions of responsibility understand what children’s online daily life is like today – this includes parents, civil servants, and politicians."
 
Last month, the IET drafted an amendment put forward by Lord Stevenson and Lord Clement-Jones that would oblige Ofcom to review how the Act applies to the metaverse. The amendment was discussed in the House of Lords, and led to the government offering assurances that Ofcom’s periodic reviews will likely include users’ experiences of services such as the metaverse.

Elementary school children working with computers

Elementary school children working with computers / The IET

Image credit: The IET

The IET's surveyed showed that the majority of parents (76 per cent) believe that tighter laws need to be introduced to protect individuals accessing immersive online experiences, while two-thirds (64 per cent) feel that interacting with strangers online could desensitise their kids to real-life dangers.

When asked what type of legislation they feel should be introduced, 44 per cent of parents believed there should be a balanced approach where the government sets and enforces general guidelines for the metaverse, and 30 per cent said they feel the company that runs the VR platform should be responsible for justice if someone is assaulted by a stranger in the virtual world. 
  
“The UK Government’s Online Safety Bill puts a “duty of care” on large tech companies, social media websites, and other businesses operating in this space to remove harmful or illegal content and protect children. But it’s not enough," Allen added.
 
“These clauses have been mainly designed around the ‘2D internet’ meaning there are a number of potential dangers unique to VR that the Bill does not currently cover. Despite the House of Lords compelling Ofcom to undertake periodic reviews to the Online Safety Bill there is still more to be done."

Girl using digital tablet

Girl using digital tablet / The IET

Image credit: The IET

The Online Safety Bill was originally presented by the government as a ground-breaking law that would make the UK “the safest place in the world for our children to go online”. The latest changes come after other updates to the bill, including criminalising the encouragement of self-harm, “downblousing” and the sharing of pornographic deepfakes.

Supporting the IET’s call to government, child safety advocate and IET Honorary Fellow, Carol Vorderman added: “Adoption of VR and metaverse-based technology is continuing to build and will be unlikely to diminish. It’s a fast-evolving and ever-changing world, which is why we are advocating for two reviews to the Bill - after 12 months and after five years.
 
“This technology offers incredible benefits and opportunities to society, but the potential risks are still not widely known or understood by regulators, users and caregivers, and lack of safeguarding could open digital spaces up for more potential abuse."
 
Alex Taylor, head of policy at the IET, said: “For the past 150 years, the IET has been committed to engineering a better world and supporting innovations that address the evolving needs of society.
 
“Our aim is to ensure everyone can safely enjoy technology, an important part of which is advocating for the metaverse to be an environment that people are able to use and experience in full without a threat to their safety.”
 
“It’s certainly a positive to see that our campaign has helped facilitate periodic Ofcom reviews into the Bill, however we are still pushing to make certain that this includes the metaverse and other emerging technologies. This will ensure the Bill keeps pace in the future as technology advances and that users continue to be sufficiently protected.”

For every day the bill is delayed, the NSPCC estimates that more than 100 grooming and other such crimes could have been recordedThe organisation also revealed there has been a 35 per cent rise in Childline counselling sessions about online grooming in the second half of 2022 alone.

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