Snapchat has admitted its age verification process cannot always stop children under the age of 13 from signing up to the app.
Giving evidence to MPs looking into the addictive and immersive nature of technology, the social media platform said some of its current processes could not completely block underage children from signing up to the platform.
The picture sharing app said it was working with government and other firms on the creation of a central age verification system which could be used across platforms to keep underage children from accessing inappropriate content and services.
Snapchat directors were making their first appearance before the House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee, where they were also questioned over whether its Streaks feature fuels addictive use of the app.
When asked, the firm’s senior director for public policy international Stephen Collins agreed that in some cases its age verification processes “did not work”.
“What we need is an age verification system which is robust and works, and we’re working hard with the Home Office and other agencies connected with it to create that,” he said.
“We have to hold our hands up and be honest. Anybody who works in the internet industry will tell you that it’s not possible to have a foolproof way to keep under 13s off any platform.”
Committee member and MP for Wrexham Ian Lucas called the situation “unacceptable”.
“You are responsible for Snapchat. You are responsible for the age verification system and it doesn’t work on the popular way of signing up to Snapchat,” he said.
“We get a lot of issues from our constituents concerning children and the impact of social media, and age verification is really important.”
The app, which has 186 million daily active users, was also asked about its policy on sharing data with law enforcement agencies.
Earlier this month Snapchat was criticised by Prime Minister Theresa May after it refused to directly cooperate with police in a fresh investigation following the online grooming, rape and murder of 14-year-old Breck Bednar.
The company instead said the request would have to be processed through the United States.
Mr Collins said that because the company’s data controller was the US, it had to comply by US law and could not directly co-operate with UK police.
He said there were “exceptional cases”, such as incidents around terrorism, child sexual exploitation and imminent threat to life situations where the company would “act in good faith and directly respond to the requests”.
However, he added that the current legal framework around mutual assistance between the UK and the US was a “very slow process” and that it was “frustrating to everybody”.
The company also defended its design as a platform, arguing that unlike other apps such as Facebook and Twitter, it did not fuel an addictive cycle of constantly scrolling and checking news feeds.
Will Scougal, Snapchat’s director of creative strategy said: “There is a fundamental difference between the way we position ourselves and the way the app is built versus platforms you might instinctively compare us to.”
He added that unlike other platforms, which open to feeds and encourage users to consume, Snapchat “opens to the camera” and users are encouraged to only share with their close friends.
“We actually don’t see ourselves as a social network because it’s not a broadcast-to-many, validate-the-content experience. It’s more a communicate with fewer people that you genuinely know – and it’s more a conversation than a broadcast platform.”
However, the directors did acknowledge concerns raised by MPs about the app’s Streaks feature, a range of emojis which indicate how regularly two friends speak to each other on the service.
In response to suggestions from the committee that they had heard concerns over the feature becoming a pressurising tool to measure friendships, Mr Collins said it was “fair comment” and that the platform would look again at the feature.