Children are increasingly turning to social media if they want to find out something new and “generally believe” what they discover online is true, according to a new study by the communications regulator.
The Ofcom research also revealed some youngsters are still being fed content about anxiety and depression when they do not want to be and are being sent sexual messages by strangers.
Some 96% of children aged three to 17 are watching videos online and just under a third (32%) are posting their own clips.
YouTube is the most popular, with 88% of children watching it – but TikTok (50%-53%) and Snapchat (42%-46%) have also grown in popularity over the past year.
A fifth of three-year-olds have a mobile phone and mobile ownership is almost universal by the time children turn 12.
The study’s authors said many children watch BBC Newsround at school but very few watch mainstream news programmes at home.
Instead, they turn to social media for information and many found out about the death of the late Queen through TikTok or YouTube.
Relying on social media for information relies on critical reflection some youngsters found “difficult or irrelevant”, the authors said.
Some younger children were unable to identify fake accounts, the authors added.
They said: “Whether they consumed it actively or passively, children generally believed that what they saw, read or heard on social media was true.
“They rarely reflected on its veracity, reliability or relevance.
“Only in a few cases, where children were particularly interested in a topic or feared they would be called out later for believing something that was untrue, did they seem to reflect more actively.”
Several children said content appeared in their feed which was generated by the platform’s algorithm, which they did not search for and sometimes would have preferred not to have seen.
Some girls who had struggled with their mental health said they were being fed unwanted content about depression and anxiety.
One 17-year-old girl, Alice, said videos tagged “recovery” which were not about recovery would come up on her feed.
Children were generally able to identify sponsored adverts but sometimes struggled to pick out more discreet forms of advertising.
Some youngsters were found to be in group chats involving strangers who sometimes shared “hazardous or inappropriate” content, with some saying they received sexual messages but chose to ignore them.
The authors found children are becoming drawn to “dramatic” videos which appear designed to maximise stimulation but require minimal effort to watch.
Gossip, conflict, controversy, extreme challenges and high stakes – often involving large sums of money – were found to be recurring themes in popular videos.
However, they did not always understand whether they were watching a drama or documentary, and whether the events they were following were real or fabricated.
In the past year, more and more children have started splitting their screens and watching two videos at once – sometimes related but sometimes with no obvious connection at all.
Children are posting their own videos less often because they are becoming increasingly self-conscious, and when they do post it is often driven by arguments or drama among their peers.
When they did post, they tended to emulate influencers such as those responsible for a craze around the energy drink Prime.
Young adults aged 18 to 24 are the most avid users of the internet and social media – using nine online communication sites or apps on average compared with six for most adults who are on the internet.
Just over half (51%) of social media users in that age group said they were spending too much time on it – up from 42% in 2021 and significantly higher than the average (32%).
They are more likely than the average social media user to say they need to take breaks from it or delete apps because they are using them too often.
Parents are more likely to believe the risks of social media outweigh the benefits, the research revealed.
It is Ofcom’s ninth annual study into children’s relationship with the online world and was compiled with the help of research agency Revealing Reality.