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Block children from sexting, Jeremy Hunt tells social media companies

The Health Secretary suggested a lock parents can put on their child's phone. Credit: PA

Social media companies should block under-18s from sending sexually explicit images, Jeremy Hunt has said.

The Health Secretary's comments came as he gave evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention efforts, where he also called for a crackdown on cyber bulling by the technology industry through the introduction of software that can detect when it is happening.

Mr Hunt said social media firms must do more to combat online intimidation, and sexual imagery which is impacting negatively on the mental health of young people.

"I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.

"There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it can do really smart things.

The Health Secretary also called for a crackdown on cyber bullying. Credit: PA

"For example, I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can't prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18, if that's a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract.

"Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.

"I ask myself why we can't identify cyber bullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.

"I think there is a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively peruse in a way that hasn't happened to date," the Health Secretary told MPs.

Members of the Health Committee urged Mr Hunt to put more resources into suicide prevention.

However, some social media experts have questioned whether such a block would work in reality.

Jodie Cook, founder of JC Social Media, said she "very much doubted" if such as ban would be "enforceable", instead advocating "education over censorship".

Ms Cook continued: "I don't think a block can be put in place and I don't think social media platforms would enforce it, plus there's always ways around it.

"Education is the key, focusing on the potential implications in the future - e.g someone leaving themselves open to blackmail or a future employer seeing something inappropriate.

"I think there is potentially more social media companies can do on privacy settings and proving people are the age they say they are."

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: "We are working with a wide range of organisations and parents through the UK Council for Child Internet safety, and they recently provided guidance to schools and colleges on how to deal with instances of sexting.

"New proposals in the Digital Economy Bill will also block pornographic websites that refuse to stop children accessing explicit content.

"The whole of Government is committed to making sure children stay safe when using technology, and we will not let up in our efforts.”