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Internet giants ‘collectively turning a blind eye’ to impact on youth mental health, minister says

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Jeremy Hunt, the UK health secretary, has launched a written attack on internet giants, accusing them of failing to protect young people using their platforms and threatening to introduce regulations if they fail to act voluntarily.

According to Hunt, these groups have failed to act to prevent cyberbullying, excessive internet use and underage use of social networks, all of which have a negative impact on the wellbeing of young people.

While some moves had been made to protect children online, he said, the response has been “extremely limited”, and that it is “unacceptable and irresponsible” to fail children in this way.

“I am concerned that your companies seem content with a situation where thousands of users breach your own terms and conditions on the minimum user age,” Hunt wrote in a letter directed at internet companies and published by the Sunday Times.

Although children must be of a certain age before they are able to create a social media account, it is easy for underage children to lie about their age to join Facebook or other platforms. Draft data privacy legislation presented by the French government in December 2017 suggested that – in order to deal with this problem – children may need to acquire parental consent in order to open a social media account.

“In particular, progress on age verification is not good enough. I am concerned that your companies seem content with a situation where thousands of users breach your own terms and conditions on the minimum user age,” Hunt wrote. “I fear that you are collectively turning a blind eye to a whole generation of children being exposed to the harmful emotional side effects of social media prematurely.”

“This is both morally wrong and deeply unfair to parents who are faced with the invidious choice of allowing children to use platforms they are too young to access, or excluding them from social interaction that often the majority of their peers are engaging in.”

In February 2018, the Science and Technology Committee launched an enquiry into the impact of social media on children’s and young people’s mental health. Numerous studies have suggested that heavy social media use is associated with poor mental and emotional wellbeing, with Instagram being ranked as the worst offender in a recent study.

Hunt has demanded that companies briskly set out measures to protect young people against excessive internet use, cyberbullying and underage use of social networks by the end of April, or face potential regulations. He has not specified what type of regulations could be introduced, or how they may be enforced.

“An industry that boasts some of the brightest minds and biggest budgets should have been able to rise to the challenge [of protecting children online],” he wrote.

Facebook and Google have stated that they, like Hunt, are committed to the protection of children, and are in the process of developing new features to help keep them safe online.

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