Norman Lamb: Social media is here to stay. We must ensure these platforms are a force for good
Social media is here to stay. It is our challenge to ensure that the reach and influence of these platforms is harnessed in the most positive ways possible, writes Norman Lamb
The impact of social media on the mental wellbeing of children and young people has come under increasing public scrutiny in recent months – and rightly so.
Campaigners in both the education and health sectors have raised serious concerns about the possible effects of heavy use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as have politicians of all parties. For this reason, the Commons’ Science and Technology committee, which I chair, has recently launched an inquiry on this subject.
This is an issue which primarily affects young people, who are living in a very different world than the one that older generations will have known growing up. We should be wary of making pronouncements on these issues without first having a robust evidence base and hearing from the people who are most affected by social media. We must listen to children, schools and youth organisations, alongside other experts.
The rapid pace of change in terms of how we interact with each other, as smart phones and social media increasingly replace face-to-face conversations, doubtless has real potential to cause harm. From body image and self-confidence, to cyber bullying, to the addictive qualities of social media platforms, where aspects of their design incentivise greater and greater use.
The Royal Society for Public Health’s report, Status of Mind, reported that “young people themselves say four of the five most used social media platforms actually make their feelings of anxiety worse.” It also states that “studies have shown that when young girls and women in their teens and early twenties view Facebook for only a short period of time, body image concerns are higher compared to non-users”. The Children’s Commissioner has found that children aged eight to twelve find it hard to manage the impact of social media.
However, we should not be too quick to dismiss the potential benefits which young people enjoy from social media as well. It allows people to interact quickly and easily with others regardless of location and can be used for education and to raise awareness of important causes. Help in confronting mental distress is also available online through a number of websites and apps.
Interestingly, research by the University of East Anglia has found that “children in care benefit from the psychological, emotional and social support gained via social media networks…help[ing] maintain healthy and appropriate birth family relationships and friendships, make new connections and ease transitions between placements and into adult independence”.
A report published by the Education Policy Institute also found that the use of social media can help to build up children’s resilience and have a positive impact on mental wellbeing when used in moderation. The research showed that teenagers with mental health problems are also more likely to seek support from Childline through the internet. It is clear that for a variety of reasons – both good and bad – social media is here to stay, so there is little use in just highlighting its possible harms. Instead, our challenge as policy makers is to understand the evidence and then to ensure that the reach and influence of these platforms is harnessed in the most positive ways possible.
A growing body of evidence suggests that limiting levels of use could help to protect children from some of the more harmful effects of social media, along with better regulation of social media platforms to ensure they are held accountable for running their sites responsibly. Beyond this, there is also more we can do to empower young people to interact with social media as safely and beneficially as possible. I look forward to presenting concrete recommendations on this when my committee concludes its inquiry.
Norman Lamb is Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk and chair of the Science and Technology select committee