A leading expert in children's online rights has called on the government to regulate social media companies and do more to protect youngsters.

Sonia Livingstone is a Professor of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and has advised the UK government, European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Europe and other national and international organisations on children’s rights, risks and safety in the digital age. The author of 20 books, she was awarded an OBE in 2014 'for services to children and child internet safety'.

Professor Livingstone said it can be difficult to identify misinformation or the significance of news online – especially on social media – as the context gets stripped away, a problem highlighted by the highly-publicised 'fake news' scandal.

“Kids get much more of their news on social media [than adults] and they haven’t had that kind of history of applying context to what they are reading,” she told BusinessCloud.

“Often it's very short clips that are circulated, especially via video, so kids don’t know why someone said something so stupid, or whatever it is.

“I think we've set children a near-impossible task as we do want to teach them to make good judgments about the quality of information.

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“The social media platforms could do much better. Some of them are working on giving some information about the source – certainly Facebook is – but the context is gone, and that is how we evaluate meaning.

“These platforms need to be designed better and I think they need to be regulated. Sadly, it begins to seem to me that the big platforms wait for the PR disaster before putting their house in order and attempting to turn it into a PR 'plus'.”

Professor Livingstone said she is “amazed” at children’s awareness of high-profile news stories such as the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal.

“The last year or two has been a bit of a crisis in the world of privacy and data protection,” she explained. “I interviewed kids in secondary school and was amazed how many kids could talk about GDPR, Cambridge Analytica and fake news... and express scepticism such as 'they say you can have your data back, but do you believe them'? From an 11-year-old, that's quite something really.

“I'd love to see every designer of a new service or product think about possible child users from the start by doing user testing with them and providing a child-friendly help service if something goes wrong which they can call and not just get an auto-response.”

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She also called on government to provide a dedicated helpline to help youngsters who are encountering problems online and have nowhere to turn.

“Children don’t use services in the way adults expect them to: they do bizarre things,” she said.

“It really worries me that there is nowhere to go – both children and parents say this. If something goes wrong on the internet, there is just nobody they know how to call.

“There is the Safer Internet Centre, which does a great job, and also Childline, but that's about it. We need a government-mandated service to say 'if you have a problem, come to us.' In Australia any child can call the e-commissioner and say ' this went wrong on Instagram and I don’t know what to do' – they will then contact Instagram and sort that out.”

She says such a service could come under the remit of the Information Commissioner’s Office, as a data protection issue, but that Childline has more expertise in relation to children so perhaps resources could be directed there to make an internet helpline a reality.

“Most people would say the pluses of tech outweigh the minuses, but right now there is such a volume of distrust which is about preferring profit over the standard of news,” she added.

“For those who are strong and resilient, the internet can be fabulous – but for those with some kind of struggles, it can make them worse.

“For kids who are vulnerable, have problems or are marginalised, using the internet seems often to compound their problems. It really is a double-edged sword.”