Children 'blackmailed into stripping for strangers', says Tory MP who wants to ban smartphones for under-16s

Children are being "blackmailed into stripping for strangers" through their smartphones, a prominent Conservative MP has warned amid a debate on young people's mental health.

Miriam Cates urged the government to "protect children" from a "real and present danger" in a Westminster Hall debate in parliament.

Ms Cates is one of the leading voices behind a campaign to ban smartphones for those under the age of 16.

She told MPs: "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."

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Ms Cates, who co-chairs the New Conservatives group of backbench Tory MPs, 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 okay."

Earlier this year, the Penistone and Stocksbridge MP told Rishi Sunak during Prime Minister's Questions that he should consider a ban on smartphones for under-16s for the sake of their mental health.

Ms Cates, a former teacher, said at the time there had been a "marked increase" in poor teenage mental health since 2010, and that it was "time to consider banning social media and perhaps even smartphones for under-16s?"

In the Westminster Hall debate, Ms Cates compared the concerns about the 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.

During the debate, other MPs raised their concerns about the impact of smartphones and bullying on social media on children, with SNP MP Alyn Smith referring to Murray Dowey, a 16-year-old boy in his Stirling constituency, who died by suicide after falling victim to "sextortion".

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Sextortion is a form of blackmail in which a child is tricked into sending sexual images of themselves to abusers, who then threaten to share the pictures with friends, family or more widely on the internet if they are not paid money.

Labour MP Sir Chris Bryant called for "many more mental health professionals into schools", adding: "Social media I think has turbocharged some of the worst aspects of humanity."

Last year, parliament passed the Online Safety Act 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 so far signed a petition calling on the government to ban smartphones and camera phones for under-16s.