Children ‘blackmailed into stripping for strangers’ on daily basis, says MP

Miriam Cates has called for ‘effective legislation to protect children’ from dangers associated with smartphones.

Miriam Cates said mobile devices had a harmful effect on children
Miriam Cates said mobile devices had a harmful effect on children (Laura Lean/PA)

Children are being “blackmailed into stripping for strangers”, an MP has warned, amid calls for the Government to ban smartphones for under-16s.

Conservative MP Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge) told a Westminster Hall debate that mobile devices had a harmful effect on children.

She said: “This Government does have less than a year left in office, but if we could pass the Coronavirus Act (2020) in just one day, surely, surely, we can use these next few months to introduce effective legislation to protect children from a real and present danger.”

Miriam Cates MP introduced the debate in Westminster Hall
Miriam Cates MP introduced the debate in Westminster Hall

Introducing the debate, Ms Cates said: “Imagine if it was a daily occurrence for our children to be propositioned for sex or blackmailed into stripping for strangers.

“Imagine if every mistake your child made was advertised on public billboards, so that everyone could laugh and mock until the shame made life not worth living.

“But this is not a horror movie, this is not some imaginary Wild West, this is the digital world that our children occupy, often for hours a day.

“Our kids are not OK.”

Ms Cates compared the outcry over a reported link between smartphones and poor mental health with the Intoxicating Liquors Act 1901, which ended the sale of alcohol to children, and the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which raised the female age of consent from 13 to 16.

“We will look back and ask why we allowed paedophiles, predators, greedy capitalists and foreign enemies unfettered access to our children online,” she said.

SNP MP Alyn Smith said Murray Dowey, a 16-year-old boy in his Stirling constituency, had died by suicide after falling victim to “sextortion”.

Victims of sextortion receive nude photographs and, if they return a similar photograph, receive threats that the image will be shared publicly unless they meet demands to share details online, including credit card information.

“Sextortion being a horrible word for a horrible thing, but it is something that we really must make particularly young people more aware of, because the risks are real and clear,” Mr Smith said.

“Murray was a bright, happy 16-year-old.

“He was football daft, Stirling Albion was his team, he was well liked, he was popular, and he took his own life after being a victim of sextortion via his Instagram chat account.”

Mr Smith said that a smartphone ban could “encourage a backlash” and would be “very difficult to enforce and regulate”.

He said: “I am very drawn to the idea of restricting access in schools, (that) would be a sensible thing to do.”

He added that police and legal enforcement were “nowhere near as joined up as tech companies and their products are”, and that regulators “don’t seem to have much teeth”.

Labour’s Sir Chris Bryant (Rhondda) said: “Social media I think has turbocharged some of the worst aspects of humanity.”

He called for “many more mental health professionals into schools”.

Sir Chris said creative education “can be a really important part of fostering better self-confidence, self-understanding, socialisation, working as part of a team and all those things, and one of the problems we have had over recent years is that that has fallen away”.

Technology minister Saqib Bhatti said: “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.

“In other words … while we may be trying to protect children from one harm, (a ban) may well lead to another.

“So, I speak to many, many parents who give me the other side of the argument, and I just want to put that on record.

“The decision on whether a child should have access to a smartphone should not be one for government.

“Instead, we should think about empowering parents to make the right call for their children and their individual circumstances.

“In fact, parents can obviously influence as consumers the market themselves and it is my belief that choice is a liberty that parents and children should be allowed to exercise.”

Parliament passed the Online Safety Act in 2023, which requires tech firms to “prevent children from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content and provide parents and children with clear and accessible ways to report problems online when they do arise”, according to the Government.

More than 24,000 people have signed a petition calling on the Government to ban smartphones and camera phones for under-16s.