Strangers are to be barred from sending messages to children on social media under plans by Ofcom to protect young people online.
In an exclusive article for the Telegraph, Melanie Dawes, the chief executive of the regulator, said that teenagers were routinely receiving unwanted approaches from strangers that put them at risk of being groomed by sexual predators.
Describing it as an online form of “stranger danger”, she said: “If these unwanted approaches happened so often in the outside world, many of us would hardly want our children to leave the house. Yet somehow, in the online space, they have become almost routine. That cannot continue.”
Under a proposed new code published on Thursday by Ofcom, tech companies including Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat will be required to block any user outside a child’s contact list from sending direct messages to them.
They will also have to ensure that children do not receive prompts for “suggested” friends, do not appear in other users’ lists of suggested friends and that their contact lists and friends’ networks are not visible to others.
These measures will be expected to be the default mode on any social media settings for children.
Tech companies that fail to enforce the measures on their sites could face fines of up to 10 per cent of their global turnover, equivalent to £95 billion for Meta, the owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Bosses of companies that persistently breach them could be jailed for up to two years.
Ms Dawes said that children were “fed up” with unwanted messages.
She described recently discussing the problem with a group of teenagers when one girl said she received two or three messages every day from “sugar daddies” – wealthy older men who pursue relationships with younger partners.
“I was talking to her when one came through on her phone,” she said.
“What we are saying is that if someone is not in a child’s friends or family contacts, you won’t be able to find them easily or to contact them. Children are fed up with this. They don’t want to be blamed. They want the responsibility to shift to us.”
Research published on Thursday by Ofcom found that 60 per cent of children surveyed had been contacted online in a way that made them feel uncomfortable, while 30 per cent had received an unwanted friend or follow request.
One in six (16 per cent) secondary school pupils had either been sent naked or half-dressed photos or been asked to share such pictures themselves, according to the survey of 2,031 children aged 11 to 18.
Asked about the possibility of financial sanctions, Ms Dawes said: “Fines are not something we reach for straightaway. We want to work with companies and try to fix things but we have a good track record of using enforcement tools when we need to do so. We will certainly not hesitate here.”
The draft codes published today set out measures that tech companies must take to meet their legal obligation under the online safety act to protect users including children from illegal content, ranging from child sexual abuse and grooming to fraud and terrorism.
Each of the draft codes will have a consultation period before requiring final approval from Parliament. Ofcom hopes to begin enforcing its first codes of practice by the end of 2024.
It comes two weeks after the act received royal assent, formalising Ofcom’s role as the regulator responsible for enforcing their legal duty of care.
The code also said that larger sites should use hash-matching technology to identify illegal images of sexual abuse and use automated tools to detect websites that have been identified as hosting abuse material.
On fighting fraud and terrorism, Ofcom said that services should use automatic detection systems to find and remove posts linked to the sale of stolen financial information and block all accounts run by proscribed terrorist organisations.
Ofcom is set to publish further codes in the coming months on other areas of online safety, such as guidance for adult sites to keep away children and protecting children from harmful content on subjects such as suicide or self-harm.News