The Science and Technology Committee recently conducted an inquiry into the impact of social media and screen-use on young peoples’ health.
The evidence examined highlighted the negative effects social media has on the health and emotional wellbeing of young people. These ranged from damage to sleep patterns and body image, to bullying, grooming and ‘sexting’. The National Crime Agency has reported there’s been a 700% increase in referrals received from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children over the past 4 years. Despite this, evidence on the effects of social media is very limited, and people are still in the dark about the true consequences of young people having an online presence.
Social networks such as Instagram and YouTube use algorithms to personalise their visitors’ experience of the site. Put simply, if you search or show an interest in cooking videos, you will keep being shown cooking videos on that site (without any further need to search). However, this ‘personalisation’ of sites can affect those who have searched for content relating to self-harm or depression, as their social media can soon become consumed by the same content.
In its report, the Committee has said that social media companies must be willing to share data with researchers (within the boundaries of data protection legislation), especially relating to those who are at risk from harmful behaviour. It has called for the Government to introduce legislation to help researchers access this data, improve online safety and protect young internet users.
The Committee also highlighted the fragmented legislation and regulation currently in force, which does little to protect young people online. For example, there’s no specific regulation relating to social media platforms with a focus on video sharing (such as YouTube) or platforms centred around social networking (such as Facebook and Twitter).
The report recommends that a comprehensive regulatory framework, which clearly sets out the responsibilities of social media companies towards their users, is developed. It’s proposed that a legal ‘duty of care’ is placed on social media companies, to ensure they act to protect the mental health and well-being of younger users.
It’s hoped that the Government’s White Paper on Online Harms will consider the recommendations in the Committee’s report, propose a coherent legal framework, and establish a regulator to help reduce the harm caused by social media, as well as take enforcement action.