Girls taking selfie photo smartphone camera

Children need protection from ‘online Wild West’, say MPs

Image credit: Roman Stetsyk |

Addiction to social media should be classed as a disease, say MPs, as they call for tough new regulation to protect children from firms operating in an “online Wild West”.

In a new report – by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing – looking at the impact of social media on mental health, MPs said platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram should be regulated by Ofcom and forced to cohere to a statutory code of conduct.

The report says more needs to be done to tackle graphic online content, including on suicide and self-harm. This follows after the father of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017, said that Instagram had “helped kill” his daughter.

Labour MP Chris Elmore, chairman of the APPG, said: “I truly think our report is the wake-up call needed to ensure – finally – that meaningful action is taken to lessen the negative impact social media is having on young people’s mental health.

“For far too long social media companies have been allowed to operate in an online Wild West, and it is in this lawless landscape that our children currently work and play online.

“This cannot continue. As the report makes clear, now is the time for the government to take action.”

In the report, the APPG says that government must publish advice for young people about the time spent online, while urging the World Health Organisation – which has previously listed an addiction to video games as a disease – to conduct research into whether the “addictive” nature of social media should be officially classed as a disease.

Regarding regulation, the APPG says the government must now “establish a duty of care on all social media companies with registered UK users aged 24 and under in the form of a statutory code of conduct, with Ofcom to act as regulator.”

The code, which would establish rules around social media and known harms to young people – such as self-harm, disordered eating, low-self-esteem, lack of sleep and over-dependence on social media – should be in place by the end of October, it says.

MPs have also called for a new Social Media Health Alliance to be set up to review the “growing evidence on the impact of social media on health and well-being”.

The APPG report also highlights other negative impacts social media could have on a child, including isolating mentally ill young people from accessing “real world” professional help, exposing them to online bullying and affecting self-esteem and body image.

Evidence submitted to the APPG showed girls are most at risk from suffering low self-esteem due to social media, however both sexes are impacted by long periods spent online.

The report also warns that the “publicising of self-harm methods, in particular novel ones, as well as glamorisation of suicide” could lead to death.

Coinciding with the report by the APPG, children’s charity Barnado’s told MPs that while 12 per cent of children who spend no time on social networking websites have symptoms of mental ill health, the figure rises to 27 per cent for those who are on the sites for three or more hours a day.

“Social media has changed the social landscape and our children and young people are the test pilots,” said Dr Max Davie, officer for health improvement for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).

“Latest evidence suggests that screen time in itself is not harmful to child health but it’s when this displaces other important activities such as sleep, physical activity and face-to-face interaction that it can lead to harm.”

In February 2019, following Ian Russell’s campaign after his daughter died, the head of Instagram said all graphic images of self-harm will be removed from the platform.

In its evidence to the APPG, Facebook, which owns Instagram, also referenced a range of Instagram accounts that are “dedicated to specific mental health issues, as well as hashtags such as #edrecovery and #bodypositive”.

Facebook said these “are used by our community to connect with one another, document their recovery and offer encouragement and support for others going through similar experiences”.

In response to the report findings, a Government spokeswoman said: “The Government will soon publish a White Paper which will set out the responsibilities of online platforms, how these responsibilities should be met and what would happen if they are not.

“An internet regulator, statutory ‘duty of care’ on platforms, and a levy on social media companies are all measures we are considering as part of our work.”

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