Social media firms have failed to tackle online child abuse, grooming and bullying, a leading children’s charity has said.The NSPCC has called on the Government to create new laws forcing internet giants such as Facebook and Twitter to do more to stop the rising problem, with those that fail to meet the standards sanctioned and fined.
The calls come weeks after Prime Minister Theresa May put pressure on social media networks to clamp down on terrorist or extremist content on their sites in the wake of the Manchester bombing.
NSPCC bosses have set out a three-step “rulebook”, which they want enforced by independent regulators. It would mean “safe accounts” with the highest privacy settings for under-18s, grooming and bullying notifications for youngsters being targeted and child safety moderators employed by all networks.
The charity’s chief executive Peter Wanless said leaving sites to make up their own rules was unacceptable, adding: “Enough is enough.”
“We need legally enforceable universal safety standards that are built in from the start,” he said.
“We’ve seen time and time again social media sites allowing violent, abusive or illegal content to appear unchecked on their sites, and in the very worst cases children have died after being targeted by predators or seeing self-harm films posted online.
“It makes no sense that in the real world we protect children from going to night clubs or seeing over-18 films, but in the online world, where they spend so much of their time, we have no equivalent safeguards to protect them from harmful strangers or violent content.
“Government must urgently bring in safe accounts, groomer alerts and specially trained child safety moderators as a bare minimum to protect our children. And websites who fail to meet these standards should be sanctioned and fined.”
The safe accounts would have location settings switched off, would not be searchable by email or phone number and would see new followers needing approval.
Grooming alerts would flag harmful behaviour, such as adults with a high rejection rate of friend requests to under-18s. It could also use artificial intelligence to pick up on “sinister messages”.
Research by the NSPCC and O2 found four out of five children feel social media sites aren’t doing enough to protect them from pornography, self-harm, bullying and hatred.
Last year, Childline gave 12,248 counselling sessions about online safety and abuse. Of those, 5,103 mentioned cyber-bullying – up 12% from the previous year.
Over the same period, there was 2,123 counselling sessions about online child sexual exploitation – up 44%.
Internet giants have been shamed by figures showing that 15 child sex offences are now committed online every day.
The rise of almost a half in such crimes over just one year highlights how paedophiles are exploiting the web to target vulnerable youngsters, with some victims as young as three.
In the last year, 5,653 child sex crimes had an online element – a rise of 44 per cent on the 3,903 offences recorded in the previous year – according to the NSPCC. The offences included grooming children online for rape and sexual assault as well as making indecent films of victims using webcams.
And many youngsters have been persuaded to share naked photos and videos of themselves – only for the paedophile to use them for blackmail.
The NSPCC accused internet companies of failing youngsters and demanded the next government bring in an independent regulator to impose fines on those failing to protect children.
They want a range of measures, including forcing companies to create special children’s accounts which would have enhanced privacy settings and filters which block inappropriate content.
Children who spoke to the charity said that often the paedophiles pretended to be their own age to get them to meet up and then forced them to carry out sex acts.
However, many said they were too scared to tell their parents in case they ‘overreacted’ and forced them to stop using social media.
One ten-year-old girl told Childline, run by the NSPCC, how she was targeted by a man who pretended to be a friend of her classmate.
She said: ‘He said he was 11. I told him where I lived because I thought he knew my friend. ‘He’s asked me to send naked pictures to him and I said no, but now I’m scared he’s going to come to where I live.’ In another case, a boy, 14, sent naked pictures to a paedophile he thought was a boy his own age after starting an online relationship. He added: ‘He’s now threatening to tell everyone that I’m gay and show them the pictures that I sent unless I keep talking to him and doing what he says.’
And a 15-year-old girl said she was raped after meeting up with a paedophile she met online. She said: ‘He turned out to be twice my age. He forced me to have sex with him. I feel so ashamed.’
The rising figures of online offences were collected from 39 police forces across England and Wales in the years 2015-16 and 2016-17.
Over these two years, for the first time police have been required to record – or ‘cyber flag’ – any crime that involved the internet. They included almost 100 offences committed against children aged ten and under, with the youngest victim being three.
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: ‘These figures confirm our fears that offenders are exploiting the internet to target children for their own dark deeds.
‘Children also tell our Childline service that they are being targeted online by some adults who pose as children and try to meet them, or persuade them to perform sexual acts on webcams, then blackmailing them.
‘This terrifies them and can leave some feeling worthless, depressed, and suicidal.’
The charity is campaigning for a law to force social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to display clear age ratings to reflect the kind of content displayed on their sites, in the same way that films are categorised.
Under its proposals, social networks would also have to use software that can pick up suspected grooming behaviour and filter harmful content. And the use of trained human moderators on social networking sites should also be increased so that they can pick up and respond to grooming behaviour, the NSPCC said.
Conservative candidate for Stroud, Neil Carmichael, who was chairman of the Commons education select committee before the general election was called, said of the NSPCC figures: ‘The scale of the activity shocks me, although I’m not surprised that through the internet this has got such a foothold. I’m very concerned about children and the access they have to the internet.
‘We have got to tighten up on the organisations that allow inappropriate access. We need to legislate on this in some way. We have to demonstrate that we are not going to tolerate this.’
It comes after government ministers criticised Facebook and other social networking sites for failing to intercept paedophiles online. An investigation found paedophiles were freely sharing child abuse images via closed groups on Facebook – prompting criticism from Home Secretary Amber Rudd.
Responding to the NSPCC figures, a spokesman for Twitter said: ‘When we are made aware of links to images of or content promoting child sexual exploitation they will be removed from the site without further notice and reported to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.’ Social networks also came in for criticism after the Manchester bombing last week.
A Daily Mail investigation found Google, Twitter and Facebook were still circulating terror manuals despite being warned about them 24 hours earlier. The handbooks instructed extremists to murder children, target concerts and make home-made bombs.