A new campaign from mobile provider Vodafone has revealed that, on average, boys aged 11-14 are exposed to harmful content within 30 minutes of being online – and one in ten are seeing it in as little as 60 seconds.

This worrying trend stems from AI algorithms pushing content promoting misogyny (69%) or violence (79%) to boys following innocent and unrelated searches (59%). Four-in-10 (42%) parents have heard their sons make inappropriate comments because of what they’ve seen online, discussing topics that are sexual (32%) or violent (44%) in nature, negatively talking about their own body image (27%) or degrading women and girls (22%).

The research, which analysed the experiences of 1,000 parents and boys (11-14) as well as over 4,000 teachers, was conducted to understand more about the effect of these algorithms. To bring the findings to life and raise awareness of the issue among parents and boys, Vodafone has, in partnership with the Global Action Plan, created a hard-hitting film, ‘The Rise of the Aggro-rithm’. The film sheds light on how some algorithms are harming the UK’s tween and teen boys by exposing them over time to an increasing stream of negative content, gradually desensitising them to the negative views they’re witnessing and impacting their thoughts and actions.

The accompanying campaign calls for ‘safety by design’ to be prioritised by regulators as they implement the Online Safety Act, which many believe doesn’t yet go far enough. Safety by design requires tech platforms to ensure users are kept safe from harmful content by building safety into the design of their products and services.

The campaign findings also revealed that this unsolicited material – pushed by AI-powered algorithms – is often seen by boys when innocently searching for fitness (28%) or gaming content (28%). Three-quarters of boys (76%) have therefore engaged with content from people or platforms they don’t actively follow online. Once they have done this, these ‘aggro-rithms’ are programmed to push more of the same, increasing boys’ exposure to harmful views, even if their initial exposure is accidental and limited.

This ‘gradual desensitisation’ is having a concerning impact in the real world, as the campaign research revealed that 70% of teachers have seen a rise in sexist language in the classroom over the last 12 months. Worryingly, 81% of teachers stated this behaviour was negatively impacting female students, and 79% stated that a lack of respect for women teachers is negatively impacting boys listening and learning in class.

Boys themselves are also feeling the effects of this content on their mental health, with two-thirds (66%) stating that seeing harmful content online made them feel a range of negative emotions including feeling worried, sad, or scared.

Women in Games Marie-Claire Isaaman commented: “The rise in popularity of figures like Andrew Tate have demonstrated the negative impact that social media can have on boys and young men. This research by Vodafone and Global Action Plan provides the stark truth – that boys are being served up misogynistic and violent content, even when searching for information on gaming, for example. It is desensitising them and, as the research suggests, is leading to more incidents of sexist language in schools.

“The abuse and verbal assault of women and girls in online games is a real – and growing – problem, so its very important   this research  has come to light, as well as the thought-provoking film. Government and online platforms must take notice and action.”

You can watch the film The Rise of the Aggro-rithm here –