Child using a smartphone at night

Regulate social media companies to protect children, urge MPs

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The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has recommended that online platforms should have the legal “duty of care” in order to protect the health and wellbeing of its young users.

Concerns about social media aggravating poor youth mental health have been reignited following the death of a young British teenager, Molly Russell, whose social media feeds were reportedly filled with distressing content. Russell’s father has commented that he has “no doubt that Instagram helped kill [his] daughter”.

Instagram was ranked the worst social network for youth mental health in a 2018 Royal Society for Public Health report.

According to the Office for National Statistics, 96 per cent of 16-24 year olds have used social networks in the past three months, while younger children’s engagement with social media is on the rise. Since February 2018, the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee has been examining the impact of this increasing Internet use on children’s health and wellbeing. The inquiry has involved a survey of 3,000 young people, interviews, focus groups and a collection of written and oral evidence from a range of expert witnesses.

In its report, Impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health, the committee has concluded that the government should formalise social media companies’ legal duty of care for their users.

The report acknowledges some of the benefits of social media – including supporting friendships, encouraging creativity and accessing health advice – but argues that young people must be protected from risks associated with social media. These risks include impacted sleep, poor body image, bullying, unwelcome sexual content and grooming. While these risks existed beforehand, social media has been widely credited with exacerbating them.

Ofcom informed the committee that there is a “loose patchwork” of regulation and legislation in place governing the behaviour of online platforms, resulting in a “standards lottery” which cannot guarantee safety for young people online, particularly on search engines, and video-sharing and social media platforms.

Suggestions for policies to hold social media companies accountable have included NHS England CEO Simon Stevens’ “social media levy” to help support mental health services. As Health and Social Care Secretary, Jeremy Hunt threatened to regulate social media companies if they continue to neglect youth mental health, while the chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies has been tasked with drafting official guidelines for social media use. However, the government has not yet introduced enforceable regulations on online platforms like Facebook and YouTube.

“At the moment, if bad things happen […] there is no recourse, no legal accountability for those social media companies,” said committee chair Norman Lamb, speaking on BBC2 this morning. “We think that needs to change.”

“The government […] has a vital part to play and must act to put an end to the current ‘standards lottery’ approach to regulation. We concluded that self-regulation will no longer suffice. We must see an independent, statutory regulator established as soon as possible, one which has the full support of the Government to take strong and effective actions against companies who do not comply,” said Lamb in a statement. “It is imperative that we take every step to protect young people online as we do offline.”

The report also recommended that the government should partner with NGOs, law enforcement and technology companies to aim to end child sexual exploitation within four years.

During the inquiry, the committee found that social media companies were failing to share their data with researchers in order to carry out large-scale, transparent studies to be carried out on social media behaviour that could contribute to evidence-based policy. Experimental psychologist Professor Andrew Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, explained that while social media companies “collect, store, and profit from extremely rich and sensitive data on our daily lives”, it was unusual for them to partner with researchers.

Consequently, the committee has recommended that social media companies should be forced to share their data with researchers, within the boundaries of data protection.

Lamb added that: “It is frustrating that there is not yet a well-established body of research examining the effects of social media on younger users. More worryingly, social media companies – who have a clear responsibility towards particularly young users – seem to be in no rush to share vital data with academics that could help tackle the very real harms our young people face in the virtual world.”

The government is due to publish a white paper on “online harms”, which may be followed with legislation; the committee has recommended that this is an opportunity to set world-leading regulation in place. However, this regulation must be coherent, timely and involve the establishment of a regulator capable of taking serious enforcement action.

A spokesperson for the department for digital, culture, media and sport - which will compile the White Paper with the Home Office - said that: “We have heard calls for an internet regulator and to place a statutory ‘duty of care’ on platforms and are seriously considering all options. Social media companies clearly need to do more to ensure they are not promoting harmful content to vulnerable people.”

Speaking on Victoria Derbyshire on BB2 this morning, anti-cyberbullying campaigner Carney Bonner welcomed the report and called on the government to “stop talking and start acting” after years of discussion.

“The Government now has a crucial opportunity to set out a comprehensive plan to protect children online,” said Andy Burrows, associate head of child safety online at the NSPCC. “This must include an independent statutory regulator with enforcement powers that can impose strong sanctions on platforms that fail to keep children safe.”

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