MPs are calling for tough new regulation to protect children from firms operating in an “online Wild West”.
Addiction to social media should potentially be classed as a disease, according to a group of MPs.
In a new report looking at the impact of social media on mental health, MPs said social media firms need strict regulation to protect children and companies should have a duty of care towards their users.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing said platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram should be regulated by Ofcom and forced to adhere to a statutory code of conduct.
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.
Image:MPs have been examining the impact of social media on mental health
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.”
Dr Max Davie, officer for health improvement for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, 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 14-year-old daughter Molly took her own life, 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”.
Facebook and Twitter have been approached for comment over the report, but are yet to respond.
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.”
:: If you feel emotionally distressed or suicidal please call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email [email protected] in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK.