Ofcom has warned social media sites they could be banned for under-18s if they fail to comply with new online safety rules.

The media regulator has published a children’s safety draft codes of practice, which requires social media firms to have more robust age-checking measures, and Ofcom boss Dame Melanie Dawes warned any company that broke them could have their minimum user age raised to 18.

But parents of children who died after exposure to harmful online content have described the Ofcom’s new rules as “insufficient”.

Spokespeople for Meta and Snapchat said the firms had extra protections for under-18s, and offer parental tools to control what children can see on their platforms.

“As a platform popular with young people, we know we have additional responsibilities to create a safe and positive experience,” said a Snapchat spokesperson.

“We support the aims of the Online Safety Act and work with experts to inform our approach to safety on Snapchat.”

And a Meta spokesperson said the firm wanted young people “to connect with others in an environment where they feel safe”.

“Content that incites violence, encourages suicide, self-injury or eating disorders breaks our rules and we remove that content when we find it,” they said.

Ms Dawes said any company that broke the draft codes of practice, which dictate firms must adjust their algorithms to avoid recommending harmful content to children, would be “named and shamed”.

In a letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak they say they have been “disappointed” by Ofcom’s “lack of ambition”.

Most of the tech companies contacted by the BBC have declined to respond to the draft measures.

It is Ofcom’s job to enforce new, stricter rules following the introduction of the Online Safety Act – these codes set out what tech firms must do to comply with that law.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Dame Melanie described the new rules as “a big moment”.

“Young people are fed harmful content on their feed again and again and this has become normalised but it needs to change,” she said.

Ofcom says there are more than 40 “practical measures” in its codes.

The centrepiece is the requirement around algorithms, which are used to decide what is shown in people’s social media feeds.

Ofcom says tech firms will need to configure their algorithms to filter out the most harmful content from children’s feeds, and reduce the visibility and prominence of other harmful content.

Other proposed measures include forcing companies to perform more rigorous age checks if they show harmful content, and making them implement stronger content moderation, including a so-called “safe search” function on search engines.

According to Ofcom’s timeline, these new measures will come into force in the second half of 2025.

Dame Melanie added: “We will be publishing league tables so that the public know which companies are implementing the changes and which ones are not.”

Ian Russell, Melanie Dawes and Esther Ghey
Ian Russell, Melanie Dawes and Esther Ghey spoke for nearly half an hour about Ofcom’s new measures

Both Mr Russell and Ms Ghey are part of a group of bereaved parents who have signed an open letter to Mr Sunak and leader of the opposition Sir Keir Starmer.

In it, they implore the politicians to do more for the online safety of children – including making “a commitment to strengthen the Online Safety Act in the first half of the next parliament.”

They also ask for mental health and suicide prevention into the school curriculum.

“While we will study Ofcom’s latest proposals carefully, we have so far been disappointed by their lack of ambition,” they add in the letter.

Ian Russell’s daughter Molly took her own life in 2017 at the age of 14.

In 2022, a coroner concluded she died from an act of self-harm while suffering depression and the negative effects of online content.

Coroner Andrew Walker said the images of self-harm and suicide she viewed “shouldn’t have been available for a child to see”.

Esther Ghey’s daughter Brianna was murdered, aged 16, by two teenagers in February 2023.

Scarlett Jenkinson and Eddie Ratcliffe were sentenced to life in prison with minimum terms of 22 and 20 years, respectively.

Jenkinson had watched violent videos on the darknet prior to carrying out the murder.

‘Step up’

The government insists the measures announced by Ofcom “will bring in a fundamental change in how children in the UK experience the online world.”

The Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan urged big tech to take the codes seriously:

“To platforms, my message is engage with us and prepare,” she said.

“Do not wait for enforcement and hefty fines – step up to meet your responsibilities and act now.”

Most of the tech companies contacted by the BBC did not reply or declined to comment on the record.

These include Meta, the owner of Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp, as well as X (formerly Twitter), TikTok, Reddit, Discord, Twitch (owned by Amazon), YouTube (owned by Google) and Apple.

Photo-sharing site Flickr said it was committed to safety without commenting on the specific draft measures.

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