Teens should not be punished with social media and smartphone bans, NSPCC warns

Teenagers should not be punished with smartphone and social media bans because of the failings of tech firms, the NSPCC has warned.

The charity’s chief executive Sir Peter Wanless said children’s voices have been “glaringly absent” from debates about online safety. He urged politicians and parents not to forget the benefits the online world can have when it is safe.

Writing in the Mirror, Sir Peter said there must be “tough consequences” for social media giants that fail to enforce age limits on their sites and stop their algorithms bombarding young people with harmful content.

“Young people want to be able to access the benefits of the online world safely. It is crucial for them to learn, communicate, explore and have fun online as well as outside in the fresh air,” he said. “But blanket bans for teenagers would punish them for the failures of tech companies to adopt safety by design.” Sir Peter urged Ofcom to be ambitious in cracking down on tech companies, adding: “Social media sites can no longer hide behind warm words and empty promises.”

It came as Tory MP Miriam Cates on Tuesday led a Westminster Hall debate on the impact of smartphones and social media on children. She has previously urged Rishi Sunak to consider banning them for under 16s.

In the debate, Ms Cates said: “It is now impossible to deny the devastating impact that smartphones and social media are having on our children. The evidence is unequivocal. Smartphones and social media are making our children sadder, sicker and more stupid.”

She demanded the legal age for social media be raised to 16 years old and for apps like Twitter /X to ban under 18s from their platforms if they cannot keep porn off their sites. Ms Cates also wants a phone for children with “no internet browser or ability to install apps” to be developed and for the Government to “urgently fund” phone lockers in schools.

Tech Minister Saqib Bhatti said there must be a balance between “protecting children from harm whilst also allowing them to reap the benefits of safe internet use”.

“We live in a digital age and many parents do want their children to have a smartphone, as these provide many benefits to children and parents such as staying connected while travelling alone,” he said. “It is my belief that choice is a liberty that parents and children should be allowed to exercise.”

He said Ofcom, which last week published draft guidance for social media firms, has “rightly put the onus on big tech to do the right thing and keep our children safe”. But with the media regulator’s rules not due to come into place until the end of 2025, Mr Bhatti added: “There’s no reason why they have to wait for Ofcom’s codes of practice, they should be getting on with the job.”

The dad of Molly Russell, 14, who took her own life after viewing harmful content online, told the Mirror last week that tech companies and the voices of concerned adults, including politicians and parents, too often shape the debate. “We don’t listen enough to what children want. The children that we speak to see the benefit that digital technology provides,” he said. “I don’t believe we need to punish children and young people by depriving them of the good digital tech can do in order to protect them from the bad.”

The mother of 16-year-old Brianna Ghey, who was murdered after one of her killers viewed violent material on the dark web, has called for age restrictions on phones to stop young people accessing harmful material. Esther Ghey is campaigning for under-16s to be banned from social media and have smartphones with no access to networking apps.