Publics Around the World: Kids – and Parents – Need a Safer Internet

Jeb Bell, Head of Research and Strategic Insights, Project Liberty Foundation

Jessica Theodule, Research Manager of Strategic Insights, Project Liberty Foundation

About Project Liberty Insights

Project Liberty Insights draws on qualitative and quantitative research among experts and the general public to advance evidence-based technology, policy and governance solutions for a safer, healthier tech ecosystem.

In a time of intense debate about the social and psychological effects of living in an always on, wired world, international opinions about social media’s potential harms are remarkably unified. Majorities of adults surveyed by Project Liberty Insights in seven different countries align in their concern about the negative impacts of social media on society, and young people in particular. Most also share the belief that tech companies – more than government or individual users – should bear the greatest responsibility for preventing harms on their platforms and for promoting online safety more broadly.

The online survey of more than 14,000 adults ages 18 to 75 in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Brazil, South Africa, India and China reveals that concerns about social media’s impact on children and teens are not limited to parents alone. Even among adults without children, large majorities are alarmed that social media could be exposing young people to inappropriate sexual or violent content and increasing the risk of online bullying or harassment.

For their part, many parents – in both the Global North and South – are already taking steps to protect their children from potential online harms. Yet, among mothers and fathers who report limiting screen time, adjusting privacy settings or applying parental controls, there remains widespread demand for social media companies to design products that keep kids safe online. This includes products that collect less personal information and consistently deliver age-appropriate content.

These are among the key findings of a new Project Liberty Insights international survey, conducted October 11 to 20, 2023. The poll additionally finds that while many consider digital media literacy valuable in helping to protect kids online, it’s no substitute for social media companies designing safe products in the first place.

Widespread concern about social media’s potential harm to kids.

The seven-country survey asked respondents about a range of potential harms that young people under the age of 18 could suffer while using social media. A median of 65% said they were “very concerned” that kids might be subjected to cyberbullying or harassment. Nearly identical shares expressed deep concern about children being exposed to inappropriate sexual or violent content (64% and 63%, respectively).

Slightly smaller majorities said they were very concerned by the amount of information young people shared on social media (62%), and how much time they spent on such platforms (61%). Six in ten were deeply worried about exposure to images of self-harm, and the same share were very concerned about children and teens being distracted from schoolwork.

More modest majorities expressed deep concern about kids experiencing peer pressure (58%), anxiety or depression (54%) and low self-esteem (53%).

In South Africa and Brazil, strong majorities of more than six in ten are deeply worried about any and all potential harms associated with young people’s use of social media. Half or more in the USA and UK express similarly high levels of across-the-board concern. While adults in France and India are equally worried by some of these potential harms, fewer than half in these two countries are deeply concerned when it comes to the specific risks of young people experiencing peer pressure or low self-esteem.

In China, where the social media ecosystem is distinct from that found in the other six countries surveyed, modest majorities are very concerned about kids being exposed to inappropriate violent content (55%), sexual content (54%) or being distracted from schoolwork (50%). Fewer are deeply worried by such potential harms as sharing too much personal information (34% very concerned), peer pressure (32%) and low self-esteem (29%).

Majorities say social media companies should be held accountable for online safety.

When respondents to the survey were asked who bears primary responsibility for keeping the internet and social media safe for adults and kids - the answer was clear: social media companies. Half or more in each of the countries polled said social media companies should bear a “great deal” of responsibility for making social media and the internet safe, including seven in ten or more in Brazil (75%), South Africa (72%) and the UK (70%).

Government seen as a close second in keeping social media and the web safe, except in the USA

In most of the countries polled, half or more believe the government also bears a “great deal” of responsibility for keeping the web and social media safe for all. This view is most widespread in Brazil (66%), followed by India (59%) and South Africa (57%). About half in the UK (52%) and France (50%) think the government should have a great deal of responsibility for ensuring online platforms are safe to use.

In the USA, where concerns about children’s online safety have led to national, state and local legislative initiatives to safeguard children online, just 38% of USA adults say the government should play a major role in regulating the internet and social media. Notably, lack of enthusiasm for general intervention by the government is bipartisan: just 45% of self-identified Democrats say the government should bear a great deal of responsibility for keeping social media and the internet safe, compared with 34% of Republican Party supporters.

Despite lackluster support among Americans for broadly defined government regulation of the internet and social media, there are several specific areas in which USA adults are more open to government action. Roughly seven in ten Americans say it’s “very important” that the government restricts the collection of children’s online data (69%). In addition, about six in ten support government steps to limit the online promotion of self-harm (61%) and ads that target children (59%).

In the other countries polled, roughly half or more back government action on each of these fronts, with support strongest for official steps to restrict the promotion of self-harm and limit the collection of young people’s online data.

Global publics want safe and secure design to be the default for kids on social media.

Across all countries surveyed, there is resounding support for better design of social media platforms in order to promote the safety and well-being of children. Among the top priorities are technical protections that prevent computer algorithms from recommending inappropriate or harmful content to kids (a median of 71% say this is “very important”). Support for better regulation of age-appropriate content is most pronounced in South Africa (84% very important), followed by the UK (76%), USA (73%) and Brazil (71%). The French are least focused on better content moderation, with just 54% saying this is very important.

Preventing children’s personal online data from being indiscriminately shared is another area of broad concern across the countries polled. A median of seven in ten say it is very important that privacy settings for social media products are set at a high level by default (70%) and that social media companies provide easy-to-use tools to control who has access to a child's data (70%). Slightly fewer (65%) across the surveyed countries believe it is vital that children are not required to share additional personal information to access special features on social media sites, while a similar proportion (63%) feel that it is extremely important that children’s geolocation data not be collected or tracked by social media companies.

Roughly six in ten or more in each of the countries polled back the above features as means of protecting children’s online privacy and identity. The one exception is China, where support for measures such as restrictive privacy settings (55%), preventing the collection of geolocation data (49%) and eliminating in-app sharing of additional personal information (45%) are not as widely viewed as vital to making social media products safe for kids.

A final area where many agree there is a need for social media products that better serve the health and well-being of children is curtailing the use of “addictive” algorithms that can encourage users (both adults and children) to spend excessive amounts of time online – so-called “doom-scrolling.” Across the seven countries surveyed, a median of 66% say it is “very important” for social media companies to design their algorithms to ensure they do not persuade children to spend excessive amounts of time online.

Again, China is the exception with regard to concerns about addictive algorithms – just 44% say eliminating such content recommendations is very important. Majorities in the other countries polled believe reining in algorithm-driven social media content is essential, including at least eight in ten in South Africa (81%) and roughly seven in ten in the USA and UK (each 69%).

Improved digital media literacy can help, but is no substitute for safe product design.

Across the seven countries surveyed, there is tepid enthusiasm for digital media literacy as a means of improving kids’ online safety. A median of just 39% say that schools offering classes in digital media literacy would make a “great deal” of difference in protecting children online, similar to the share who say such education would make a “fair amount” of difference in keeping young people safe on social media and other platforms.

Support for digital media literacy is most pronounced in South Africa – 68% say such education would result in a “great deal” of improvement in kids’ online safety. A modest majority (53%) of Indians concur, as do just under half (48%) of Brazilians. Americans (39% “great deal”) and Britons (36%) are less convinced, while Chinese and French citizens are the most skeptical (28% and 23% “great deal,” respectively).

When it comes to kids' online safety, parents are not waiting for social media companies or the government to safeguard their children.

Parents around the world are employing a range of techniques and interventions to help keep their kids healthy and safe online. Across all countries surveyed, limiting time spent online is the most frequent action taken by parents; a median of 73% say they limit the amount of time or times of day when their children go online. Parents in South Africa (80%), China (79%) and Brazil (78%) are especially likely to enact time limits, while those in France and India (68% in both countries) are somewhat less likely to restrict time spent online.

Parental controls are nearly as popular, with about two in three parents (65%) globally reporting the use of parental controls or other means of blocking, filtering or monitoring their children’s online activities. South African parents (73%) are among the most likely to rely on parental controls, while French parents (60%) are the least likely among those polled to exercise this option.

Notably, many parents turn to more than technology to address child safety concerns. A median of 61% of parents surveyed say they have talked with their children because they were concerned about something they posted online. In Brazil, almost eight in ten parents (79%) have had a conversation with their child out of concern about their online posts, compared with only 53% in the UK.

Rather than rejecting social media outright, the data suggests that parents are trying to make social media safer for their kids. Privacy concerns motivate some of these actions; 58% say they have helped their children set up privacy settings for a social media site. In India, parents are by far the most likely to assist their children with privacy settings for social media profiles; 70% do so compared with just 51% of parents in France.

And while some kids may see it as an encroachment on their physical privacy, many parents around the world use technology to track the location of their children. A median 54% of parents globally have monitored their children's location using an app or internet-connected device. Once again, parents in India (64%) are the most likely to embrace digital tracking tools for keeping tabs on their kids’ location, while a much smaller share of parents in France (43%) do so.

While it is one of the more basic strategies to keep tabs on online content and reputation management, just 48% of parents globally have searched for their children’s names online to see what information is available about them. India is an exception in this regard, as 67% of parents there have checked up on their children’s digital footprints. By contrast, less than half as many parents in the UK (33%) have done so.

Despite widespread concerns about social media’s potential harms, substantial shares see an upside to kids connecting online.

Globally, despite widespread concern about social media’s potential risks for the well-being of young people, public opinion is divided as to whether social media, on the whole, has had a negative or positive impact on children. Across the countries surveyed, a median of 52% think access to social media platforms has been either “very negative” (17%) or “somewhat negative” (33%) for young people under 18 years of age. By comparison, a median of 46% believe social media’s effect on kids has been either “very positive” (13%) or “somewhat positive” (34%). Notably, the bulk of public opinion lies somewhere between complete embrace and thorough denouncement of social media as a pervasive facet of young people’s lives.

Views do vary across the countries polled. In France (62%), the UK (59%) and USA (58%), clear majorities say social media has had a negative effect on kids, including about a quarter or more (24% to 28%) who say the effect has been very negative. Roughly half in South Africa (52%) and Brazil (49%) also take a jaded view of social media’s impact on young people (17% in each country say the effect has been very negative). But in all five countries, three in ten or more are optimistic about social media’s impact on children and teens.

In India and China, attitudes toward social media are much more sanguine. Robust majorities (73% and 71%, respectively) say social media has been a positive force in young people’s lives. This includes 32% of Indians, who say social media has been a “very positive” influence for kids.

How we define “child” matters: Most say age 13 is too young to be active on social media.

While there is disagreement about the overall impact of social media on kids’ well-being, there is broad consensus that age 13 is too young to be an active social media user. A median of 66% across the countries surveyed say that young people should be at least 14, if not older, before accessing social media sites. This view dovetails with warnings from the U.S. Surgeon General that 13 is not a magical age at which the potential harms of social media vanish.

In all but China, majorities of roughly six in ten or more agree that kids should be older than 13 before using social media. Among Chinese respondents, who are immersed in a very different online culture than their counterparts in the other countries polled, opinion is divided: 45% think 14 or older is an appropriate age to have one’s own social media account, compared with 42% who say it’s fine for children 13 or younger to be active on social media. In China (13%), as well as France (17%), USA (13%) and UK 12%) more than one-in-ten are undecided on the issue.


Project Liberty partnered with polling firm J.L. Partners to field an international survey of 14,220 adults aged 18 to 74 years from October 11 to 20, 2023. Participants were recruited by Cint from online survey panel providers in seven countries: Brazil, China (mainland), France, India, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

The survey includes at least 2,000 respondents in each country, with samples designed to be nationally representative of the adult-age population. Samples included for age, gender and geographic region. Weighting was employed to adjust final sample composition to more closely match a country’s most recent census data. The estimated margin of error for each national samples is +/- 2.2 percentage points.

The samples in the USA, UK and France can be taken as representative of their general adult population under the age of 75. The samples in Brazil, mainland China, India and South Africa are more urban, more educated and/or more affluent than the general population. The survey results for these countries should be viewed as reflecting the views of the more “connected” segment of the population.

Note: In the text and tables, percentages may not sum to 100% due to rounding.

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