Tech companies have a “cavalier” attitude when it comes to protecting young social media users, who will grow up to question their exposure to “wild and dangerous” online spaces, England’s children’s commissioner has said.
Ann Longfield compared online dangers to driving without a seatbelt, adding that children will wonder how adults ever allowed them to use social media during a time when “distressing content” was allowed on platforms.
In an interview with The Telegraph ahead of her stepping down as children’s commissioner, Ms Longfield expressed her “frustration” with the slow progress on duty of care laws to protect children online.
She said: “I do think [children] will look back on this period and they will see it literally was a time where the digital world was a wild and dangerous place.
“I think they will wonder how adults ever let that happen and I think they will look at it in the same way we now look back and wonder how children were allowed to ride in cars without seatbelts.”
Speaking about the death of schoolgirl Molly Russell in 2017, Ms Longfield said she would “never forget” the images of self-harm she saw online.
The 14-year-old, from Harrow in northwest London, engaged with tens of thousands of social media posts linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide in the six-month period before she ended her life.
The inquest into her death will look into how algorithms used by social media giants to keep users scrolling may have contributed to her death.
Ms Longfield said: “I remember searching at that time and actually seeing those images. I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing them, they were so shocking. It really did mean that action and to be taken.
“I think we could still go online and we could still find that on platforms enough distressing content to make us concerned. So I don’t think enough has been done. But certainly there was a change at that point.”
She called for social media bosses to face criminal prosecution for failing to safeguard children effectively.
It comes as a bill to impose a statutory duty of care on tech companies to protect users from harm is being prepared for presentation to Parliament, which Ms Longfield has pushed for throughout her tenure since being appointed in 2015.
Currently, the government is proposing to appoint Ofcom as a new digital regulator and to give it powers to impose billions of pounds in fines or even bans on tech companies that fail to protect children using their platforms.
In her final speech in the position of children’s commissioner on Wednesday, Ms Longfield will argue that children should be at the centre of UK efforts to rebuild following the coronavirus crisis.
Additional reporting by PA