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For young people's sake, it's time to get tough on social media firms

5 min read

Chris Elmore MP, chair of the all-party group on social media and young people's mental health and wellbeing, says it is time for politicians to tackle a problem hiding in "plain sight".

For most people in the country, social media now forms a central part of their daily lives. Be it baby pics and algorithm memories on Facebook, political pile- ons and group outrage on Twitter, the theoretical calm of Instagram or the baffling-for-over-20’s Snapchat, the rhythm of our work and personal lives are set online.

For millions of people across the UK – and around the world – opening one of these platforms is the first thing they do when they wake, and the last before bed. Quietly, yet insidiously, social media has – quite literally – transformed the way we live our lives.

As a society, we have barely begun to quite understand these radical lifestyle changes have had on us over the past decade. More dangerously, neither have we been quick enough in responding to the pressures and new challenges it presents to young people, the first generation for whom growing up online is the norm. Social media does, of course, have its positives; you only have to look at my Facebook and Twitter feeds to know that I am a regular user. But these platforms are so powerful, and so pervasive, we must start to examine our relationship with these platforms and assess the real public health challenges they pose.

To do just this, I have recently chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing. I’ve been working with the Royal Society for Public Health to gather evidence from a range of stakeholders to shine a light on this issue. Through this work, we’ve been able to identify a number of worrying trends amongst young people who regularly use social media and – importantly – we’ve come up with a set of workable solutions to help improve the situation. Today, we’ve published a landmark report with our findings called: “#NewFilters to manage the impact of social media on young people’s mental health and wellbeing”.

This report illustrates the sheer scale of a problem we are only just facing up to. One particularly startling finding was that the percentage of children experiencing mental health issues more than doubles among youngsters who spend three or more hours per day on social media compared to those who aren’t signed up to these sites. Add to this the prevalence of body-shaming online, a deeply worrying 46% of girls who responded found that social media had a negative impact on their self-esteem.

Of course, we all remember the recent tragic case of 14-year-old Molly Russell who took her own life after viewing material about self-harm on Instagram. I fear that this experience online is not atypical and highlights the very real dangersout there to young and impressionable people. For me, tragedies like Molly’s underline exactly why it’s vital the government takes real and meaningful action
to get to grips with the crisis unfolding online, but away from the eyes of parents and politicians – it is a scandal hiding in plain site.

Our report calls for the Government to legislate for a social media companies to have a statutory duty of care for their users. Why is this important? Because the time for voluntary action has long-since passed and failed spectacularly. It’s ever more apparent that the big tech giants will simply not act unless the Government intervenes directly. We know that this change wouldn’t be a silver bullet; it must work hand-in-glove with action from across government because, we know that people are always going to use social media and these mental health challenges are not going to disappear. That’s why we’re calling for a Social Media Health Alliance to be funded by levying a 0.5% on the profits of social media companies which will fund research, educational initiatives and establish clear new guidance for the public.

It’s essential that we urgently commission robust research into the impact social media is having on our young people and review whether it warrants being classified as an official disease. Just as with other addictions – cigarettes, alcohol, gambling or drugs – we need to realise that while a scroll through Facebook might not have any apparent physical effects, the damage it can do to someone’s mental health must not be underestimated.

Of course, we all know that far too many issues are being squarely kicked into the long grass at the moment due to Brexit. While Brexit is undoubtedly a hugely important issue for the country – and particularly young people across our communities – it’s crucial that we start properly tackling some of the many issues which are directly affecting people’s lives beyond our relationship with Europe. And so I hope that government will work constructively with the APPG, the Royal Society for Public Health and the devolved administrations so that we can finally begin facing up to this problem.

Put bluntly, if we fail to do so, we risk failing millions of young people who are currently suffering in silence.


Chris Ellmore is Labour MP for Ogmore.

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