‘It is too late, our boys have gone’: Grieving parents tell Ofcom to ‘step up’ over social media content

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Social media platforms must do more to stop their algorithms from recommending harmful content to children, Ofcom has said.

The regulator has published its draft children’s safety codes of practice laying out the new standards it will expect tech giants to follow to protect children under the Online Safety Act.

But two mothers who believe their children died as a result of copying dangerous social media challenges say they feel “belittled” by Ofcom over its failure to listen to grieving parents.

Sky News has spoken to the mothers of Archie Battersbee, who died aged 12 after a “prank or experiment” went wrong at their home and Isaac Kenevan, 13, who is believed to have died after taking part in a choke challenge on social media.

“They should be listening to us as bereaved parents,” said Isaac’s mother Lisa.

“Ofcom have got the power, the policing, and we feel like we’ve been belittled, they’ve said certain things but there’s just no action at the moment.”

Archie’s mother Hollie said: “I’ve seen a handful of parents that are now going through what we’re going through and it’s heartbreaking… in a civilised society, this should not happen.”

When the government passed the Online Safety Act last October, it came with new enforcement powers for Ofcom.

Both Hollie and Lisa campaigned tirelessly to get the bill passed and both are frustrated by how painfully slow the process is proving to be.

Ms Kenevan said: “This law has been put in place but nothing has really changed, which is frustrating for us, it’s almost like an insult to us because we’ve put in so much work.

“It is too late, our boys have gone… but Ofcom should really step up and hold their feet to the fire… step in fast to stop the content being in there in the first place.”

Taming algorithms

Ofcom’s draft code of conduct includes robust age checks, improved complaints procedures and a commitment from social media platforms to take action to tame algorithms which recommend harmful content to children.

Fail and they could in theory be fined 10% of their global turnover.

Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes told Sky News: “In less than a year, we will be able to enforce against these codes and what I’m saying to the tech industry today is don’t wait for that moment.

“Over the next few years, we will see that change and we are going to drive it forward with every possible tool that we’ve got.”

‘Big step change for the industry’

Ofcom denies excluding people from its consultations, insisting victim groups and bereaved families have been among the 15,000 children and 7,000 parents it has already spoken to.

Dame Melanie said: “Those families who’ve lost children through what’s happened to them online, we ask them please do carry on working with us.

“What we’re proposing today is such a big step change for the industry, please work with us and talk to us, so that we can get this right.”

For the parents of Archie and Isaac, ever-present is the dread over how many children remain at risk.

Ms Kenevan said: “While these laws are trying to be put in place unfortunately there are more and more children dying and that’s the most frustrating thing because we’re in a club that we don’t want to be in and we don’t want anyone else joining that club.”

Meanwhile, Brianna Ghey’s mother Esther has told Sky News that mobile phone companies must “take responsibility” for what children view online.

Esther Ghey has campaigned for greater regulation for mobile phone companies, as well as young people’s access to mindfulness therapies, since two teenagers – Scarlett Jenkinson and Eddie Ratcliffe – were jailed in February for 22 and 20 years respectively for the “exceptionally brutal” murder of 16-year-old Brianna in Warrington.

Ms Ghey said: “It would be great if we could have, at point of purchase, software that helps parents monitor what their children are doing.

“There is software out that can flag up concerning words and then that alerts the parents that the child is looking at self-harm images or searching on the extreme side of it, the things that Scarlett Jenkinson was searching.”

“The parent can then be responsible for their child and do something about it,” Ms Ghey said, who has started a petition in support of her campaign.

Watch the full interview with Esther Ghey on The UK Tonight on Sky News at 8pm on Wednesday.

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