Senior MPs have urged ministers to impose mandatory age checks on social media websites to stop children from being exposed to harmful material.
The Tory MPs said that the government’s plans for the Online Safety Bill were too “woolly” and had to be toughened up. There was increasingly a cross-party consensus that mandatory age verification was needed, they said, adding that the government would be forced to act if it refused to do so.
Many of the biggest companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, require their users to be at least 13. The minimum age requirement is widely flouted, however, and many young children simply lie about their age.
The Tory MP Damian Collins, who is chairing a joint committee scrutinising the bill, said that the provisions in the legislation were too weak. He said: “At the moment we only have measures that are based on self-declaration. Young children can be exposed to extreme content without any checks.
“My concern is that when you look at incidents of self-harm and depression in young people, these problems have all got worse. We need to look at the role robust age-verification can play.”
The bill states only that companies are expected to use tools that “might” include age verification or age assurance. The regulator Ofcom will only be able to “recommend” that companies use age assurance or verification.
Julian Knight, culture select committee chairman, said: “The current wording is very woolly. I don’t think it’s going to get through the House unless it mandates age verification.”
Dame Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, joined calls yesterday for stronger protections to be imposed to keep children safe online. She has also proposed three alternative legislative measures for the government to consider if tech companies are unable to fix the problem. They include reinstating a proposed 2017 law on age verification for porn sites and fast-tracking a voluntary code of practice for social media companies. She has also urged the government to back a private member’s bill laying out minimum standards for social media companies.
She told The Daily Telegraph: “These tech companies are so huge . . . I really want to push back on them and say, ‘Although you are doing many things, the volume of traffic is so huge, you need to do more to keep kids safe.’ ”
Jo Stevens, shadow culture secretary, said: “The evidence children are being damaged by accessing harmful content is overwhelming but for years the government has ignored the problem.”