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Rishi Sunak thinks young people under 16 should be less active on social media

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    Rishi Sunak is considering limiting social media access for teenagers under the age of 16 to try to protect them from online harm, with reports suggesting a potential ban is on the cards.

    The government is considering further action despite bringing in the Online Safety Act, which requires social media platforms to shield children from harmful content or face fines of up to 10% of a company’s global revenue.

    A consultation would be launched in the new year, Bloomberg first reported, to explore the risks that children were exposed to while using social media.

    While some sources told the news website that social media bans for under-16s were under consideration, a government spokesperson played down such a prospect on Thursday.

    “From our point of view, we’re looking at ways to empower parents rather than crack down on anything in particular,” they said. “We’ve identified that there is a gap in research so we’ll be looking at what more research into it needs to be done, but nothing is yet signed off by ministers.”

    The Molly Rose Foundation, a charity set up by the family of Molly Russell, who killed herself at the age of 14 after viewing harmful content on Instagram and Pinterest, said the emphasis of any review should be on giving more powers to the communications watchdog, Ofcom.

    “It is clear that further measures are necessary to protect children from online risks,” said Andy Burrows, an adviser to the foundation. “But the emphasis should firmly be on strengthening the regulator’s hand to ensure platforms are no longer awash with a set of avoidable dangers.”

    Beeban Kidron, a cross-bench peer and influential campaigner for children’s online safety, said: “The vast majority of social media is designed in a way that makes it addictive, polarising and parades unrealistic lifestyles of desire – so it ends up being a lousy place to spend your teenage years. But I am concerned that the kneejerk response is to exclude children from digital spaces rather than designing them to support their flourishing.”

    The prime minister’s deputy official spokesperson did not comment on the specific proposals but told reporters: “We are looking broadly at this issue of keeping children safe online.”

    Charities and campaigners have been calling for more robust online safety regulation since 2017, and the legislation took a lengthy route before finally receiving royal assent in the autumn. The NSPCC children’s charity said that in those six years, 34,400 online grooming crimes against children had been recorded by police forces across the UK.

    The National Crime Agency recently warned parents about the risks of using Facebook since Meta decided to introduce encrypted messaging. The move means the company will no longer see what its users are sharing with each other, which could allow child abusers to groom children or share images with other offenders, according to the NCA.

    The policing minister, Chris Philp, said Meta’s decision was “grossly irresponsible” as it “will prevent thousands of paedophiles from being arrested”. Philp called on the social media firm to reverse its “terrible decision immediately”.

    His calls were followed by the schools minister, Damian Hinds, saying it was “absolutely paramount” law enforcement agencies had the ability to intercept those engaging in child abuse.

    “It’s not about protecting people’s privacy. This is really a question about ability to intercept and to ultimately investigate, bring to justice, people who are engaging in child abuse,” Hinds told Times Radio on Thursday.


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