Children will grow up to question their exposure to “wild and dangerous” social media, England’s Children’s Commissioner has said.
Anne Longfield accused tech companies of having a “cavalier” attitude towards protecting young and vulnerable social media users.
Speaking in an interview with the Telegraph, she compared online dangers to driving without a seatbelt.
“I do think that [today’s children] will look back on this period and they will see it literally was a time where the digital world was a wild and dangerous place,” she said.
“I think they will wonder how adults ever let that happen and I think they will look at it in the same way we now look back and wonder how children were allowed to ride in cars without seatbelts.”
Ms Longfield said she would “never forget” images of self-harm she saw, following the death of schoolgirl Molly Russell in 2017.
The 14-year-old, from Harrow in north-west London, engaged with tens of thousands of social media posts linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide in the six-month period before she ended her life.
The inquest into her death will look at how algorithms used by social media giants to keep users hooked may have contributed to her death.
Ms Longfield warned not enough had been done to prevent similar tragedies happening in future and called for social media bosses to face criminal prosecution for failing to safeguard children effectively.
It comes as a Bill to impose a statutory duty of care on tech companies to protect users from harm is being prepared for presentation to Parliament, though Ms Longfield said she was “frustrated” that the process had taken so long.
Ms Longfield is due to step down from her role as Children’s Commissioner at the end of February this year, having held the position since March 2015.
In her final speech in the position on Wednesday, she will argue that children should be at the centre of UK efforts to rebuild, following the Covid crisis.