British subscription site OnlyFans is failing to prevent underage users from selling and appearing in explicit videos, a BBC investigation has found.
Under-18s have used fake identification to set up accounts, and police say a 14-year-old used a grandmother's passport.
The UK's most senior police officer for child protection also says children are being "exploited" on the platform.
OnlyFans says its age verification systems go over and above regulatory requirements.
The platform has more than a million "creators" who share video clips, photos and messages directly with subscribers for a monthly fee.
In return for hosting the material, OnlyFans takes a 20% share of all payments.
Warning: Story contains adult themes and language
There is a range of content on the site but it is best known for pornography, and requires users to be over 18.
OnlyFans was a big winner during the pandemic, exploding in popularity as much of the world was housebound. The social media platform has grown nearly 10-fold since 2019, and now has more than 120 million users.
Some creators have become millionaires from their accounts, yet for most it has been a lifeline or a second income during the pandemic.
But BBC News has investigated concerns that under-18s are selling explicit videos on the site, despite it being illegal for individuals to post or share indecent images of children.
As part of our investigation, we found that one 17-year-old from a suburb in the south-east of England had sold videos of herself masturbating and playing with sex toys, while an under-18 participated in graphic videos hosted on an adult account in Nevada, US, in breach of the company's terms and conditions.
We were also able to set up an account for an underage creator, by using a 26-year-old's identification, showing how the site's age-verification process could be cheated.
OnlyFans says it has now shut down the accounts. But BBC News has also heard from child protection experts across the UK and US, spoken to dozens of police forces and schools, and obtained anonymised extracts from Childline counsellor notes, about underage experiences on OnlyFans. The notes included one girl who told counsellors she had accessed the site when she was just 13.
These sources told BBC News about a number of serious cases:
- Schools have shared anonymous reports of pupils using the site, including a 16-year-old who boasted to her careers adviser about the amount of money she made on the site, and showed off her "exuberant" spending on Instagram.
- Underage creators and users of the site include victims of prior sexual abuse and those with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, according to Childline counsellor notes.
- UK police forces say children have complained about their images being uploaded to the site without consent, and one 17-year-old reported being blackmailed.
- Missing children are appearing in OnlyFans videos, according to a US watchdog, which also says it has received reports of child sexual exploitation.
"It is increasingly clear that OnlyFans is being used by children," says chief constable Simon Bailey, the UK's child protection lead.
"The company is not doing enough to put in place the safeguards that prevent children exploiting the opportunity to generate money, but also for children to be exploited."
In a statement, OnlyFans says it could not respond specifically to the anonymous reports we were told about without the account details.
It says its efforts to stop children accessing its site limits the likelihood of them being exposed to blackmail or exploitation, and if it is notified about these behaviours it takes swift action and disables accounts.
It started with feet photos
Leah, 17, was able to set up an account using a fake driving licence and sell explicit videos.
She told her mum Caitlyn about being on OnlyFans, on the way to Tesco's near their home in south-east England in January.
That week Leah's bank account had been frozen after she received a payment of more than £5,000 from selling explicit videos on the site, Caitlyn says.
Caitlyn says she was as shocked as "any parent" would be. "I don't understand why people are paying so much money for this," she told the BBC.
Leah had "big issues" growing up and missed a lot of education, Caitlyn says. Naked photographs of her were once shared around school without her consent.
She told her mum she originally intended to only post pictures of her feet after making money selling them on Snapchat. But this soon escalated to explicit videos of her masturbating and playing with sex toys.
In tweets advertising her OnlyFans account - some of which include teaser videos - people call her "beautiful" and "sexy", and ask if she would meet up.
"Post a pussy shot and I'll subscribe," is another typical response.
Caitlyn says she doesn't approve of her daughter using the site, but can see why people go on it, given how much money can be made.
Leah used most of the money to buy presents for her boyfriend, including more than £1,000 on designer clothes. They have since broken up.
In a statement, OnlyFans said that Leah's ability to access the site was an "oversight", and her fake driving licence did not trigger a red flag. It said her account was approved during a transition "from one effective ID and age verification system to a new exceptionally effective" one.
Leah's age was directly reported to OnlyFans by an anonymous social media account in late January. The company says this led to a moderator reviewing the account and double-checking her ID. As it appeared legitimate, no further action was taken.
Caitlyn says it was stated "everywhere" on other online accounts that her daughter was 17. There is no obligation for a website to investigate, but OnlyFans told the BBC it checks social media when verifying accounts.
Leah stopped posting on OnlyFans, but her account remained active on the site four months later, with more than 50 archived pictures and videos. She had logged on as recently as late April.
After being contacted by BBC News, OnlyFans shut down her page. It says it has also refunded all active subscriptions to her account. But images from her account have already been leaked all across the internet.
Leah's now anxious about leaving the house for fear of being recognised, her mum says. Her plans to go to college have been delayed.
"She won't go out at all, really," Caitlyn says. "She doesn't want to be seen."
BBC News also heard of other cases of underage children gaining access to OnlyFans.
Hertfordshire Police told us that a 14-year-old girl had managed to use her grandmother's passport and bank details to sell explicit images. They say she then redirected money from that account to her own.
OnlyFans says the account was "fraudulent" and involved the help of others. The site says it is assisting police and has since updated its age-verification system to "further reduce the chance" of this happening again.
But BBC News tested the site's "new exceptionally effective" system in April. While a fake ID did not work, we were able to set up an OnlyFans account for a 17-year-old by using her 26-year-old sister's passport. The girl never had access to the account.
The site requires applicants to pose next to an ID card and then submit a photograph holding it up to their face. But the age verification system failed to distinguish between them at any stage of the process, despite the age gap.
After setting up an account, creators must provide bank details to receive payment through OnlyFans. However, this does not prevent them posting images and videos.
BBC News has found that creators can share content and then arrange payments through alternative providers, in violation of company guidelines. One of the most popular is Cash App, which allows users to transfer money by mobile phone. We found scores of accounts advertising this.
We were then able to send a direct message to a subscriber and request payment through Cash App, using a common alternative spelling (Ca$happ).
OnlyFans says its list of prohibited words on the site already includes a number of variations of "Cash App". It says this list has now been expanded.
'Sucked into' appearing in videos
OnlyFans requires creators making "co-authored" material to have documentation showing that all participants are over 18 years old. All contributors must also be registered creators on the site.
BBC News has discovered that under-18s are also appearing in explicit videos on accounts run by adults in violation of OnlyFans' guidelines.
Aaron was 17 when he started making videos on the site with his girlfriend in Nevada, US.
According to his friend Jordan, Aaron didn't have his own account, but instead "got sucked into" appearing in explicit videos posted by his girlfriend, Cody, who was a year older than him.
Aaron soon started bragging about the amount of money he was making. "He was actually very proud of doing it," Jordan says.
The content included sex filmed in one of their bedrooms. They shared $5,000 between them from a single video, his friends say.
"[He] was elated that they were making such an amazing amount of money for just having sex on camera for other people to watch," says a woman who has known Aaron for many years.
She says he had a tough childhood and was "very vulnerable to exploitation". Cody had previously showered him with gifts on his 16th birthday, and admitted to earning the money by selling nudes online "to some old guy", she added.
Jordan says Aaron had encouraged him to make videos on OnlyFans, even though he was also underage.
"He used to say: 'Bro, you can do it, we make so much money a week, it's easy, you don't have to work ever.'"
BBC News was told the account was reported to police in the US in October 2020 but had not been removed until we contacted OnlyFans about the case this month.
In its response, OnlyFans says all active subscriptions would now be refunded. It said it is now liaising with the police, but had not previously been contacted about the account.
Aaron is now 18 and has broken up with Cody. His friends say he now plans to begin his own OnlyFans account.
Boasting to careers adviser
As a part of the investigation, we also spoke to schools, police forces and child protection experts who told us they are hearing from under 18-year-olds whose experiences on the site have had serious consequences.
One school in London says it became aware of the site after a 16-year-old pupil openly boasted to her careers adviser about how much money she was making from it, asking why she should listen to their advice.
The girl later revealed to staff that she had been posting "very sexualised, pornographic" images, says the school's head of safeguarding, who also told us about a 12 year-old girl who said she had used the site to contact adult creators and asked to meet up.
The deputy head asked to be anonymous to protect the identities of the children.
He said the 16-year-old girl had used Instagram to show-off her "exuberant" spending and build a large number of followers.
Childline counsellors have come across a number of cases in which under-18s, some of whom are vulnerable, reference their use of OnlyFans. It shared anonymised extracts from counsellor notes with BBC News.
Children using the site who contacted the service reported being victims of prior sexual abuse, while others presented "mental health issues including anger, low self-esteem, self-harm and suicide ideation".
One girl told a counsellor she had been on OnlyFans since she was 13.
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"I don't wanna talk about the types of pictures I post on there and I know it's not appropriate for kids my age to be doing this, but it's an easy way to make money," she said according to the notes, which have identifying details removed.
"Some of the girls have thousands of followers on Instagram and they must be raking it in," she added. "I wanna be just like them."
While most of Childline's cases referred to girls, counsellors also heard from boys who said they subscribed to the site, including one who said it had affected his opinions of sex.
Another, who was 16, said he had lost sleep and was "worried to the point of throwing up" about someone discovering he had bought nudes on the site.
Because the reports were provided to the BBC without any identifying details of the children or OnlyFans accounts in question, we were unable to provide the platform with account names. It said it could not comment on the cases without those details.
It also said it manually reviews every application to stop under-age access, and has increased staffing numbers in compliance, in line with the growth of the site.
The UK's national lead for child protection policing Chief Constable Simon Bailey, says it is "increasingly clear" that OnlyFans is being used by children.
While it is illegal to post or share explicit images of someone under the age of 18, Mr Bailey says the police are extremely reluctant to criminalise children for such offences. He says he is more concerned about the risks children are exposing themselves to by appearing on the site.
"The company are not doing enough to put in place the safeguards that prevent children exploiting the opportunity to generate money, but also for children to be exploited," Mr Bailey says.
BBC News asked police forces about complaints they had received involving children appearing on the site.
One 17-year-old girl in South Wales complained to police that she was blackmailed into continuing to post nudes on OnlyFans, or face photographs from the site being shared with her family.
Three children also complained to police that their images had been uploaded to the site without consent, including a 17-year-old in Surrey who said her face had been edited onto someone else's body.
OnlyFans says it cannot respond to these cases without being provided with account details, which the police were unable to pass on to us. It says it has a number of systems in place to prevent children from accessing the site and continues to look for new ways to enhance them.
But there are also concerns about the welfare of vulnerable young people outside UK.
Missing children are increasingly being linked to OnlyFans videos, says the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), known as a global clearing house for reports of child sexual exploitation.
"In 2019 there were around a dozen children known to be missing being linked with content on OnlyFans," says its vice president, Staca Shehan. "Last year the number of those cases nearly tripled."
While much of the content on OnlyFans featuring children involves teenagers uploading their own content, NCMEC says it is also finding evidence of child sexual exploitation and trafficking.
In January, a couple from Florida who were in their 20s were charged with human trafficking after allegedly selling a topless photograph of a 16-year-old girl on OnlyFans.
OnlyFans says it works with online exploitation agencies like NCMEC to raise any potential issues with the relevant authorities.
'Toxic cocktail of risks'
Stories about OnlyFans have become a fixture in the press. Tabloids are fascinated by the fortunes made on the site, and the intrigue of nurses and teachers signing up.
Elsewhere, broadsheets have marvelled at the platform's business model and impact on the digital landscape.
The Financial Times recently called it "the hottest social media platform in the world". The newspaper reported that OnlyFans' revenue grew by 553% in the year to November 2020, and users spent £1.7bn on the site.
Men's lifestyle magazine GQ says "innovations like OnlyFans have undoubtedly changed Internet culture and, by extension, social behaviour forever".
Andy Burrows, the NSPCC's head of policy for child safety online, sees its impact differently. He says the site blurs the lines between influencer culture and sexualised behaviour on social media for young people, and presents a "toxic cocktail of risks".
"OnlyFans underlines why it's so important that we see regulation so that it's no longer a choice for platforms about whether and how they protect children using their services," he says.
Two years ago, the UK government published a proposal to tackle the dangers posed by online content. The Online Safety Bill, announced in May, would see companies fined £18m or 10% of their global turnover if they fail to keep children safe on their platforms.
But there are concerns about how long it will take for the law to come into effect and whether the deterrent is sufficient for wealthy tech companies. The NSPCC says there is no accountability placed on senior managers, unlike the regulation of financial services where directors of companies can be criminally liable.
In a statement in response to our investigation, the government was highly critical of OnlyFans. The website has "failed to properly protect children and this is completely unacceptable", a spokesperson said. "Our new laws will make sure this no longer happens."
We asked the department for culture, media and sport what specifically in the draft online safety bill would stop such underage use of OnlyFans and similar websites in the future. It said all companies hosting user-generated content would need to put measures in place to prevent underage users seeing inappropriate content.
"The question is whether or not this bill will have sufficient teeth and power," says John Carr, secretary of the Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. "That is still far from clear."
He believes there are still no guarantees that legislation will require OnlyFans to do more than it currently does and says it's "a bit rich" of the government to blame companies themselves.
"In a sense, the real culprit here is the government for not having acted sooner and that's why the prospect of three, four years further delay is [itself] completely unacceptable," he added.
OnlyFans declined our request for an interview. In a statement it said:
"We use a combination of state-of-the-art technology together with human monitoring and review to prevent children under the age of 18 from sharing content on OnlyFans.
"This is something that we take very seriously. We constantly review our systems to ensure they are as robust as possible."
It added that its systems continue to evolve as new technology becomes available to "help us to reduce incidences of under-18-year-olds becoming OnlyFans users".
The pandemic has transformed many people's online lives in ways they might never have imagined.
But the consequences of children sharing explicit images - especially when the content could be leaked - may continue to haunt them for a long time to come.
All names of children and adults associated with them have been changed to protect their identities.
Additional reporting by Chris Bell.