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NHS England head pitches ‘mental health levy’ for social media companies

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Simon Stevens, CEO of NHS England, has said that the government should consider requiring social media companies to contribute towards treatment for mental ill health.

The suggestion comes amid a growing consensus that overuse of social media can have a negative effect on mental health (particularly of young people). A body of evidence also suggests that social media is addictive; last year, former Facebook president Sean Parker stated that the social network had been designed to “exploit” psychological vulnerabilities of its users.

A Royal Society for Public Health study – in collaboration with the Young Health Movement – found that heavy social media use was associated with poor sleep, depression, anxiety, poor body image and other complications and that Instagram was the most psychologically damaging social network.

“I think we’ve now got enough evidence and research into the impact of social media on mental health,” said Stevens, speaking at the Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit in London. “Although it’s not fully developed, there’s widespread acceptance that overuse of these platforms can have a detrimental effect on children and young people.”

“Mental health services, particularly for young people, are reporting an increased number of admissions linked to use of social media and some companies themselves are starting to recognise this,” he said, mentioning that WhatsApp recently raised its minimum age from 13 to 16 in the EU.

Stevens said that it was necessary to consider what social media platforms should be doing to “help stem the tide of mental ill health […] or at least pick up the pieces”.

Stevens pointed to the practice of requiring industries associated with negative public impacts to contribute a share of their profits to schemes offsetting these impacts. For instance, the gambling industry has been asked to contribute to GambleAware, while the banking levy requires banks to pay taxes above standard corporate taxes in order to discourage risky borrowing, following the 2008 financial crash.

He suggested that money contributed by social media companies in a ‘mental health levy’ could be used to help expand mental public health services, which have been frequently described as critically underfunded. A Lancet report published ahead of World Mental Health Day found that every country is failing to tackle a “global mental health crisis” which claims an estimated 13.5 million lives a year.

During the Conservative Party conference last week, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock announced that Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, was leading a review into the impact of excessive technology use among children. This could result in the introduction of maximum screen time recommendations, much like maximum alcohol intake recommendations.

“We need to […] discuss whether the equivalent of a mental health levy would be a proportionate response, both in terms of changing behaviour on the part of the companies involved and in terms of providing a funding stream for the expanded services we all want to see.”

High-profile figures who have spoken out about the impact of excessive social media use on youth mental health include Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, who has warned young students not to “spend all day online”.

This week, EU researchers launched a major international research network – the European Problematic Use of the Internet Research Network – dedicated to studying health problems associated with excessive Internet use.

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