Children need to be protected from ‘online Wild West’, MPs claim

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

In a new report 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 adhere to a statutory code of conduct.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing said more needed to be done to tackle graphic online content, including on suicide and self-harm.

Children online research
The Government has been urged to publish advice for young people (Peter Byrne/PA)

It comes after the father of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017, said Instagram had “helped kill” his daughter.

In its report, the APPG said the Government must publish advice for young people about time spent online, while research should be carried out into whether the “addictive” nature of social media should be officially classed as a disease by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The WHO already lists gaming disorder – such as addiction to video games – as a disease.

On regulation, the APPG said 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 said.

MPs 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”, funded by a 0.5% levy on the profits of social media companies.

The APPG said social media has the potential to positively impact young people’s lives, such as through “allowing young people to open up about their feelings, find support, and feel less isolated and lonely”.

It reported on other negative impacts 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 but both sexes are impacted by long periods spent online.

Barnardo’s told MPs that while 12% of children who spend no time on social networking websites have symptoms of mental ill health, the figure rises to 27% for those who are on the sites for three or more hours a day.

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.”

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said: “The overarching finding is the need for social media companies to have in place a duty of care to protect vulnerable users and the need for regulation which would provide much needed health and safety protection for what is a lawless digital playground.”

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chairwoman of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said it agreed with the recommendations and called for more research into harms, funded by social media firms.

She added: “We want to see the creation of a clear, statutory duty of care for social media companies and an external regulator to manage this.”

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

“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.”

The APPG report warned the “publicising of self-harm methods, in particular novel ones, as well as glamorisation of suicide” can lead to death.

In February, 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”.

Both Facebook and Twitter have been approached for comment.

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.”

Chris Price