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Online regulations should include mental health levy, MPs say

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Following the publication of a White Paper laying out the government’s proposals for regulating internet companies to prevent “online harms”, MPs have called for further measures.

Under the proposed regulations, internet companies of all sizes would have a statutory duty of care for their users, and could face severe fines and other punishments enforced by an independent regulator for failing to protect users from harmful content, such as videos of violent acts.

Chris Elmore, a Labour MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing, made the suggestion during a Commons debate on the government’s proposals.

While Elmore welcomed the report, he said that his group recommended an amendment. He proposed that a 0.5 per cent levy on social media companies' profits could allow for the formation of a “Social Media Health Alliance”. This industry-funded group would allow for more research to be conducted into the effects of social media on adolescent mental health, as well as helping to collate existing research to “educate, inform, and protect” young people in the future.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright, who worked on the report with Home Secretary Sajid Javid, agreed that more research should be done into this area such that the problems could be better understood.

Labour MP David Lammy also raised the issue of social media and its possible link to knife-based injuries among young people: “It’s clear when you look at some drill music and its relationship with knife crime and gang culture, when you look at self-harm amongst young people, that mental health is being driven by much of this social media.”

Other MPs raised further concerns about specific harms to adolescents that could be exacerbated by social media.

While a causal link between social media (and heavy device use) and poor mental health is often taken as well-established fact, researchers have pointed out that it is very difficult to investigate the social and psychological impacts of social media.

In February, the Chief Medical Officers of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland concluded that there was “insufficient evidence” to set screen-time limits for children. Professor Andrew Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, has been outspoken about the difficulty in conducting research on this subject while social media companies do not share their datasets. Researchers are typically limited to relying on self-reported measures of social media and screen time (Przybylski and his colleagues recently used a combination of self-reported measures and time diaries to study impacts of screen time on adolescents, concluding there was little evidence that screen time affects wellbeing).

The White Paper published yesterday stated that the proposed internet regulator would “work with companies to ensure that academics have access to company data to undertake research, subject to suitable safeguards”, and that regulatory activity would be evidence-based.

The Government has qualified that it is preparing some further proposals on internet regulation which were not specified in the White Paper. According to Wright, this will include new rules governing political advertising; Damian Collins – chair of the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee – had raised the concerning omission following the publication of the report and called for emergency legislation to be introduced to handle political ads on social media if there is an early election.

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