Ofcom: Tech firms must do more to protect women online

By Zoe Kleinman
Technology editor

  • Published
Woman scrolls on phone in bed at nightImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Women are not only more likely to be targeted but also suffer more as a consequence, Ofcom's survey found

The head of media regulator Ofcom says tech firms must do more to protect women online, after its report revealed they were more likely to be victims.

Its report on UK media habits says women are more likely than men to face online abuse, and more likely to be distressed by it.

Only 42% of the women in its survey said they felt comfortable about speaking freely online.

Dame Melanie Dawes said firms should prioritise user safety over revenue.

Ofcom is set to become the regulator of social-media platforms as part of the government's Online Harms Bill, which puts the onus on tech companies to act swiftly to protect users and remove hateful content - or face steep fines.

In its survey of more than 6,600 adults in the UK, only 21% of people who had reported content to the social networks said it had been removed as a result, and half said nothing had happened at all.

"Look at your algorithms. Too many companies prioritise growth and revenue over user safety and don't actually think about the impact on the front-line user," said Dame Melanie, the regulator's chief executive.

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Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes said tech giants must do more to protect female users online

"Let's speak to women and make it easier for them to report things. At the moment people don't trust that if they do report things anything will be done."

Dame Melanie also urged the tech giants to "look in the mirror" and make sure female members of staff were involved in the development of services and platforms.

She said it was "much, much harder" to "retro-fit" safety measures.

'It really does get to you'

Iona Fyfe, a 24-year-old Scottish folk singer, is regularly subjected to abuse on Twitter.

"When it's prolonged, extended, pile-ons, it really does get to you," she said.

"You question your self-worth, you question your talent, you question if you're good enough. I think that's really sad.

"I don't think we should be bullied out the room."

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Singer Iona Fyfe says prolonged social media abuse "really does get to you"

Meta tops app charts

Every year Ofcom surveys thousands of UK adults and children to build up a snapshot of their media habits.

It found that in 2021 adults spent an average of four hours a day online.

And the top four most-used apps all belonged to Facebook owner Meta.

Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger accounted for a combined average of 42 minutes of internet use per day.

Around 35 minutes were spent on Google apps and sites.

Overall, people in the UK are spending slightly more time online now than they did during the first year of the pandemic.

Of the people in the survey group who had experienced trolling, 60% of the women said they had been affected by it, compared with 25% of the men.

Mixed-ethnic and black internet users were most likely to be exposed to potential harm online, with nearly 75% saying they had encountered it in the past month.

However, overall 67% of internet users believed the benefits of being online outweighed the risks.

Gaming

The report also looked at gaming habits.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Activision Blizzard's Candy Crush Saga remains the UK's top-reaching mobile gaming app

It found that the mobile game with the most reach was still the 2012 title, Candy Crush Saga, which had 2.5 million UK players (1.7 million of them women) in February 2022.

In the same month 1.8 million adults played Wordle.

Sony's PlayStation Plus was the most popular gaming subscription service, with 3.2 million paying subscribers.

Other findings included:

  • Of the UK visitors to the dating platform Tinder, 62% were men and 38% were women
  • 58% of UK three-to-15-year-olds use social media, such as TikTok or Snapchat (the age for having a social-media account is 13)
  • One in five people accessed the internet only via a smartphone in 2021
  • There were five million UK TikTok users aged 15-24 in February 2022, spending 56 minutes per day on the site on average
  • In September 2021, nine out of 10 adults used Amazon
  • The most common forms of "online harm" are scams, phishing and fraud