Molly Russell, 14, took her own life after accessing horrific images online
Youngsters should be banned from social media sites if the web giants cannot clean up their act, England’s Children’s Commissioner has said.
Anne Longfield demanded technology firms finally take responsibility to protect teenagers from the blight of vile posts promoting self-harm and suicide.
Her intervention comes as ministers consider legislation to impose on the companies a statutory ‘duty of care’ online.
In a letter to sites including YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat, Mrs Longfield said the tragic case of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life after accessing horrific images online, should be a moment of reflection.
‘I would appeal to you to accept there are problems and to commit to tackling them – or admit publicly that you are unable to,’ she wrote.
At the weekend, 30 families accused social media companies of contributing to their children’s deaths by failing to remove distressing posts that are easily accessible online.
The growing problem was highlighted last week when father Ian Russell accused Instagram, the social network owned by Facebook, of playing a part in the suicide of his daughter Molly.
Mrs Longfield said the cases showed more than ever why the technology giants should heed her calls for the establishment of a digital ombudsman, financed by the firms but independent of them, to ensure dangerous content is removed quickly.
She also renewed her demand the sites are bound by a ‘legal obligation to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of children’ using their platforms.
Whitehall officials last night confirmed they were looking at the possibility of introducing a statutory duty of care as part of draft legislation due to be published within weeks.
Anne Longfield demanded technology firms finally take responsibility to protect teenagers from the blight of vile posts promoting self-harm and suicide
A source said: ‘Ministers are clear that the White Paper will set out responsibility for social media firms, how they should be met, and what happens if they do not.’
In her open letter, Mrs Longfield called on the technology firms to finally take the action they have promised to tackle the problem of harmful content or admit they are powerless to do so.
He wrote: ‘The tragic suicide of Molly Russell and her father’s appalled response to the material she was viewing on social media before her death have again highlighted the horrific amount of disturbing content that children are accessing online.
‘I do not think it is going too far to question whether even you, the owners, any longer have any control over their content.
‘If that is the case, then children should not be accessing your services at all, and parents should be aware that the idea of any authority overseeing algorithms and content is a mirage.’
The Commissioner said none of the platforms ‘regularly used by vast numbers of children were designed or developed with children in mind, and for some children this is proving harmful, whether that is due to addictive in-app features, inappropriate algorithms or a lack of responsibility for the hosting of dangerous content.’
Ian Russell, pictured, accused Instagram, the social network owned by Facebook, of playing a part in the suicide of his daughter Molly
She added: ‘Over the last few years, I have had dialogue with many of the big social media companies over how best to make sure children have the resilience, information and power they need to make safe and informed choices about their digital lives.
‘I have been reassured time and time again that this is an issue taken seriously. However, I believe that there is still a failure to engage and that children remain an afterthought.’
She went on: ‘The potential disruption to all user experiences should no longer be a brake on making the safety and wellbeing of young people a top priority. Neither should hiding behind servers and apparatus in other jurisdictions be an acceptable way of avoiding responsibility.
‘The recent tragic cases of young people who had accessed and drawn from sites that post deeply troubling content around suicide and self-harm, and who in the end took their own lives, should be a moment of reflection. ‘I would appeal to you to accept there are problems and to commit to tackling them – or admit publicly that you are unable to.’
She concluded the letter: ‘With great power comes great responsibility, and it is your responsibility to support measures that give children the information and tools they need growing up in this digital world – or to admit that you cannot control what anyone sees on your platforms.’
Ministers pledged last May to ‘address the Wild West elements of the internet through legislation’ and officials have been meeting with industry as they finalise legislative proposals.
A Government spokesman said: ‘This winter we will publish a white paper, setting out new laws to tackle the full range of online harms and set clear responsibilities for tech companies to keep UK citizens safe.’