Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said the proposed legislation needed to be backed up by robust penalties from a strong regulator.
“The social media companies have spent too long ducking responsibility for the content they host online and ensuring those using their apps are the appropriate age,” she said.
“The introduction of a statutory duty of care is very welcome and something I have long been calling for. It should now be implemented as quickly as possible so that all platforms, no matter their size, are held accountable.
“Any new regulator must have bite. Companies who fail in their responsibilities must face both significant financial penalties and a duty to publicly apologise for their actions and set out how they will prevent mistakes happening in the future.
“I hope the social media companies don’t wait to be made to do this and act immediately to take down harmful content and to ensure that under-13s are not using their products.
“The internet wasn’t designed with children in mind, but they are among its biggest users. Social media platforms dominate aspects of their lives in a way that could never have been imagined thirty years ago. With this power must come responsibility - and it can’t come soon enough.”
Barnardo’s chief executive, Javed Khan echoed Ms Longfield’s support for an independent regulator.
“Children in the UK are facing growing risks online - from cyber-bullying to sexual grooming to gaming addiction,” he said.
“The internet can be a force for good but we can’t ignore the risks. Two thirds of the vulnerable children and young people supported through our sexual exploitation services were groomed online before meeting their abuser in person.
“Barnardo’s has long called for new laws to protect children online, just as we do offline, so they can learn, play and communicate safely.
“The Government’s announcement today is an important step in the right direction. We particularly welcome proposals for a new independent regulator, which should ensure internet bosses make the UK one of the safest places in the world for children to be online.
“It’s only right that tech companies are penalised if they fail to keep children safe and protect them from harmful and illegal content that leads to sexual abuse and child criminal exploitation.”
However, Daniel Dyball, UK executive director at trade body the Internet Association warned that the current scope of the proposals was “extremely wide”, which could hinder their implementation.
“The internet industry is committed to working together with government and civil society to ensure the UK is a safe place to be online. But to do this, we need proposals that are targeted and practical to implement for platforms both big and small,” he said.
“We also need to protect freedom of speech and the services consumers love. The scope of the recommendations is extremely wide, and decisions about how we regulate what is and is not allowed online should be made by parliament.”
Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, whose office has already taken action against firms, including Facebook, over data misuse, said the proposals were an important step in the debate around how to stop harmful content.
“I think the white paper proposals reflect people’s growing mistrust of social media and online services,” she said.
“People want to use these services, they appreciate the value of them, but they’re increasingly questioning how much control they have of what they see, and how their information is used. That relationship needs repairing, and regulation can help that. If we get this right, we can protect people online while embracing the opportunities of digital innovation.
“While this important debate unfolds, we will continue to take action. We have powers, provided under data protection law, to act decisively where people’s information is being misused online, and we have specific powers to ensure firms are accountable to the people whose data they use.
“We’ve already taken action against online services, we acted when people’s data was misused in relation to political campaigning, and we will be consulting shortly on a statutory code to protect children online. We see the current focus on online harms as complementary to our work, and look forward to participating in discussions regarding the white paper.”