Government to Punish Tech Giants for Allowing Children on Social Media

The Technology Secretary has warned social media firms must deactivate underaged children’s accounts or risk huge fines under the upcoming Online Safety Bill.
Government to Punish Tech Giants for Allowing Children on Social Media
A pupil uses his mobile phone for research during a english lesson at the Ridings Federation Winterbourne International Academy in Winterbourne near Bristol on February 26, 2015. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Owen Evans

The government will punish companies such as Instagram, Facebook and TikTok with “humongous” fines for allowing children on social media platforms in upcoming legislation on online spaces.

With the Online Safety Bill returning to Parliament for its final stages on Wednesday, the Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan told The Telegraph that social media firms must deactivate underaged children’s accounts or risk fines.

“If that means deactivating the accounts of nine-year-olds or eight-year-olds, then they’re going to have to do that," she said.

“Because otherwise the mental toll and the ramifications for these young people is unimaginable and we’re just storing up a bigger problem for tomorrow in terms of the long-term impact that we are going to face,” she added.

60 Percent of 8-11 Year Olds On Social Media

Despite being under the minimum age requirement (13 for most social media sites), 33 percent of 5-7s and twice as many 8-11s (60 percent) said they had a social media profile, according to the regulator Ofcom, which will be responsible for policing the law.

“We’ve got kids as young as nine, eight-year-olds on social media platforms and also accessing things like pornography,” said Ms Donelan.

“We can’t expect these young children to grow up and be able to live happy, successful lives unless we’re setting them up right. That is important. That’s why these changes are going to make a massive difference.”

She added: “If the [companies] are found by the regulator to be allowing young people on their platform below the age of 13, they could face these massive humongous fines.

“If they continue to ignore that they could even face potentially criminal liability. So this is a massive deterrent to ensure that social media companies take this seriously.”

The government will publish a draft code of practice before Christmas that will “raise the threshold” for the “appropriate” checks which will be required to prevent under-13s accessing social media platforms.

Online Safety Bill

The upcoming bill on regulating online spaces will force Google, Twitter, Meta (formerly Facebook), and others, to abide by a code of conduct overseen by Ofcom, and remove “legal, but harmful” content.

Under the bill, the biggest social media platforms must carry out risk assessments on the types of harms that could appear on their services and how they plan to address them, setting out how they will do this in their terms of service.

When and if the bill comes into force, Ofcom will have the power to fine companies failing to comply with the laws up to 10 percent of their annual global turnover.

Children's rights advocates such as Bereaved Families for Online Safety have welcomed the bill.

The group, started by a group of parents including those of Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017, after viewing online content related to depression and self-harm for months in 2017, have campaigned to include powers that'll force Big Tech companies to give bereaved parents as well as coroners the content of their dead children’s accounts.

Though the bill has also been heavily criticised amid start warnings regarding free speech.

Free speech advocates fear the bill is a “censor’s charter” and former frontbenchers have warned that it gives “unprecedented censorship powers” to the government.

Matthew Lesh, IEA's head of public policy, and Victoria Hewson, IEA's head of regulatory affairs, wrote in their report that the bill’s "scope, complexity, and reach are breath-taking" and that it "threatens free speech and privacy while imposing immense regulatory burdens on platforms that will stifle innovation."

They said that the secretary of state and the UK’s regulator of communications services Ofcom will have unprecedented powers to define and limit speech, with "limited parliamentary or judicial oversight."

Owen Evans is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in civil liberties and free speech.