It is dinner time on a Friday evening and a teenage girl is sitting in her bedroom facing the camera on her laptop.
On the other end of the screen, boys are telling her to take her clothes off. “Your tits look heavy, do you want me to hold them?” a boy says. “I’d still dog you darling,” another replies.
Later on a boy asks if he can call a girl, who is black, a “dirty little slave”. Another group livestream is titled “n***a lynching clubhouse”.
The conversations are all happening on a social media app called Yubo, which is known as “Tinder for teens” and allows children aged 13 to 17 to match with potential dates as well as to join “lives” where they are encouraged to interact with about 100 other teenagers.
An undercover investigation into the app, which has 3.6 million UK users, has found children are subjected to sexual harassment, racism and bullying.
Schools have sent warnings to parents telling them that Yubo may not be safe. Head teachers have shared a newsletter saying that “due to the nature of this app, your child may come across content that is not appropriate to them”.
James Loten, deputy head at Harwich and Dovercourt school, in Essex, told parents he was concerned it could be “exploited by adults for nefarious purposes”. Kingsley primary school, in Co Durham, said children should be stopped from downloading it.
Our undercover reporter spent ten days on Yubo, posing as a 15-year-old girl called Anne. No age verification was required, with the journalist able to use profile pictures of her 20-year-old self.
She was propositioned for sex and frequently asked to send nude pictures. A message from a 17-year-old boy said: “Let me rail [have sex with] you”, while others on a livestream told girls they would “strip you naked and rape you” and “choke you”.
A black 16-year-old was told by another user: “I’d let you pick my cotton any day.”
Self-harm and suicide were frequently discussed. Our reporter saw a group of boys trade explicit images of girls they knew while others chanted “get your wrists out” to a female user. Others were told to “f*** off and kill yourselves” during a discussion about feminism.
Many of the conversations happened as teens were finishing school and doing their homework, with some parents shouting up to bedrooms about coming down for dinner.
MPs and campaigners said the investigation raised significant safety concerns. They also questioned whether children would be sufficiently protected by the new Online Safety Bill, which could be presented to parliament within weeks.
The Conservative MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the education select committee, said the findings were “deeply shocking, both for the parents and children involved, and also for educators across the country”. “The Online Safety Bill is a welcome step in the right direction but much more needs to be done to keep pace with the ever-evolving technology,” he said.
Chris Philp, the minister for tech and the digital economy, said: “What I have heard about this site is sickening. Apps designed for and marketed at children should be safe for them to use. The government will not allow this kind of thing to continue threatening children and that is why we are strengthening the Online Safety Bill to put a stop to content harmful to children once and for all.”
Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis, one of England’s biggest academy trusts, with 52 schools, said the site was dangerous and must be made safer “to stop lives being lost and futures ruined”.
Young people have contacted the charity Childline asking for help. “A guy saved my nudes on Yubo. I eventually got him to delete them but he said if I don’t send him stuff tomorrow he’ll get the pictures back and spread them,” one girl said.
Ian Critchley, in charge of child protection for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said sites such as Yubo were being used to “commit some of the most abhorrent acts”.
“These platforms are multimillion-pound companies. They take large profits and they have the moral and legal responsibility to make sure the communities they have created are safe communities. There is much more they can do.
“The findings from your report highlight the role they must play in being proactive in seeking to stop child abuse where perpetrators are seeking to groom children,” he said.
Sarah Parker, from Catch 22, an agency that works with police and schools to combat child exploitation, said Yubo had been mentioned in a “flurry” of recent cases.
The new Online Safety Bill is supposed “to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online”.
Under the new rules social media companies will have to show a “duty of care” to users by removing illegal content and ensuring children are not exposed to inappropriate material.
If they do not meet these responsibilities, tech giants could face fines from the regulator Ofcom and senior managers may be held criminally liable.
Baroness Morgan of Cotes, a former education and digital secretary, said: “No teenager should be exposed to the harmful content that you found … just because Yubo or any other platform can’t properly police their sites. Those running Yubo and similar sites need to be held accountable.”
Yubo says its moderators check profiles and monitor messages for inappropriate content, yet chats with names such as “pissing on dead n**gs” appeared to go unnoticed.
Rules on the discussion and consumption of drugs, which it also claims to enforce, were consistently broken.
Our reporter heard a drug dealer telling a 15-year-old girl about ketamine and acid. As a teenage girl appeared to snort cocaine, a male user said: “Would you do a line off my wood [erection]?”.
Yubo, which is based in Paris and was previously called Yellow, has been linked to a string of criminal cases involving teenagers being groomed.
Last week Rhys Stone, 21, was jailed at Cardiff crown court after he locked a 17-year-old in his car and subjected her to a sexual attack as she screamed and begged him to stop.
He had met the victim hours before on a Yubo livestream.
Dewan Gazi, 22, was sentenced to 12 years in October 2019 for raping a 12-year-old and sexually abusing a 15-year-old. Over a period of 12 days, he had messaged 95 teenagers on the app.
Detective Sergeant Jinnett Lunt, from Greater Manchester police, said: “What this case showed was Gazi’s apparent intent on using Yubo with a view to making contact with as many young people as possible, before moving them on to other platforms where he would then commit his offending.”
Last month pupils at the Jewish Free School in north London revealed that younger children were using Yubo, where bullying and harassment were rife. The school was placed into special measures last year by inspectors after the death of a 14-year-old girl.
In a report Ofsted told of widespread “sexual bullying including via social media” at the school, which has 2,000 pupils and where three students are thought to have taken their own lives in the past four years.
Assemblies on sexting were held, with parents given advice on supervising their teenagers’ phone use. The school has since improved.
A spokeswoman for Yubo said the safety of users was “our foremost priority”, with safety practices developed on a “constant” basis. They added that the site cared “deeply” about the wellbeing of its users.
Yubo said it had an extensive range of safety tools in place to “safeguard our users at every stage of their journey within the app”, with moderators who “intervene in real time”, and has an age verification process.
A spokeswoman said: “We are saddened to learn of the journalist’s experience and can only apologise for the way she and others have been impacted during this time on our platform. We’re taking the investigation by The Sunday Times extremely seriously and have instigated an immediate review of the safety features and how they may have failed. Our users and their safety always have, and always will, come first.”