Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

A Digital Duty of Care for Young People – Balancing Policy and Users Interests

  Ellie Colegate (2020 cohort)

Fundamentally the Internet was designed as a network to connect users around the world and share content. Nearly 30 years after it was launched to the public this is no different. However, the content being shared has evolved, with potentially harmful content being shared more frequently. These ‘online harms’ have been recognised to greatly affect all users, with young people being highlighted as a user group particularly susceptible to the effects of harmful content online. [1, 2] With notable cases driving works of charities and governments alike. In 2019, the UK Government released a White Paper [3] introducing a new ‘duty of care’ that would, in theory, address the presence of harmful content online by imposing regulations on companies to oversee the content they host on their platforms. Recently, this was followed by the 2021 Draft Online Safety Bill which provided more specifics, indicating that services such as social media sites would be those that will be subject to the most requirements and ‘duties’ [4] Specific provisions concerning children and the content they are likely to interact with were also included in the above Bill [5, 6] However, due to the new nature of these proposals in their current format, a lack of real-world testing and exploration can be identified.

To address this recognised gap, this project will investigate how these duties of care could potentially affect young people aged between 12 – 20. Exploring what they, as a user group understand the duties to be, how they expect the duties to work to reduce harm, and whether they think there could be any alterations to suit their specific requirements. Seeking to answer the overarching research question: to what extent will the digital duties of care impact young people aged 12-20 operating online?

This will be done through an empirical, qualitative methodology. Legal baseline work will be done to break down the duties presented in the 2021 Draft Bill, using the current understandings of what a ‘duty of care’ can mean from current statutory and common law to present an alternative take on the provisions. [7] These findings will then be presented to a representative group of young people for assessment via a positioning exercise to collate their understandings. It is anticipated that this project will contribute to understanding, addressing how effective these proposals may be in practice in connection to young people, identifying any areas for further development to ensure that reducing harmful content online is achieved.


[1] Slavtcheva-Petkova V, Nash VJ and Bulger M, ‘Evidence on the Extent of Harms Experienced by Children as a Result of Online Risks: Implications for Policy and Research’ (2015) 18 Information, Communication & Society 48

[2] OFCOM, Information Commissioners Office and Jigsaw Research, ‘Internet Users’ Experience of Potential Online Harms: Summary of Survey Research’ (2020) <https://www.ofcom.org.uk/research-and-data/internet-and-on-demand-research/internet-use-and-attitudes/internet-users-experience-of-harm-online>

[3] The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, The Online Harms White Paper (2019)

[4] s. 2, s. 5, s. 6 Draft Online Safety Bill 2021

[5] s. 10, s. 26, s. 28 Draft Online Safety Bill 2021

[6] Nyamutata C, ‘Childhood in the Digital Age: A Socio-Cultural and Legal Analysis of the UK’s Proposed Virtual Legal Duty of Care’ (2019) 27 International Journal of Law and Information Technology 311

[7] Woods L, ‘The Duty of Care in the Online Harms White Paper’ (2019) 11 Journal of Media Law 6

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (UKRI Grant No. EP/S023305/1).