There are many reports about the damage social media usage can do to people’s mental health, particularly young people. Online bullying, suicide guides and self harm ‘tips’ are all part of our relatively new online world. But who is responsible for navigating, standard setting and rule enforcement? Some things are already governed by existing criminal law. In order to investigate the rest of the issues, the government put together an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Media and Young People’s Health.

What did this APPG on Social Media and Young People’s Health discover?

After a year, the APPG on Social Media and Young People’s Health have just submitted a report on their findings to the government: ‘#NewFilters to manage the impact of social media on young people’s mental health and wellbeing’. During this time they worked with the Royal Society for Public Health and consulted parents, young people, charities and other experts to gather the necessary evidence.

The forward acknowledges the positive effects of using social media and explains that the inquiry’s “recommendations seek to improve measures to protect the vulnerable”.

Report’s key findings:

  • “Social media can have a range of positive effects: providing a platform for self-expression, enhancing social connections, and supporting learning.
  • Young people using social media to find support for mental health conditions are at high-risk of unintentional exposure to graphic content and that discourse could unhelpfully “glamorise” mental illness and prevent young people from accessing professional help.
  • 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.
  • Almost two-thirds (63%) of young people reported social media was a good source of health information.
  • Pressure to conform to beauty standards perpetuated and praised online can encourage harmful behaviours to achieve “results”, including disordered eating and body shame.
  • 46% of girls compared to 38% of all young people reporting that social media had a negative impact on their self-esteem.”

How do we fix these issues?

The chair of the APPG on Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health, Chris Elmore MP, said:

“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.”

The APPG’s report give four key recommendations to tackle these issues.

  • Increase tax on social media companies by 0.5% to directly fund a new Social Media Health Alliance. Its primary aims will be to keep track of the evidence which shows the impact of social media on mental health and produce guidance for the public based on this evidence.
  • Separately to this evidence gathering, actually commission a full scientific study into the impact of social media usage on the health of young people. And determine if the ‘addiction’ should be officially classified as a disease.
  • Statutory Code of Conduct, regulated by Ofcom, must be adhered to by all social media companies with users that are registered in the UK, up to the age of 24.
  • Gather evidence to establish the parameters of “excessive social media use” for young people and deliver guidance to the public.

Are these recommendations now government policy?

No, the APGG presented their Report and the government will then write their own white paper on any subsequent policy. They are not obliged to accept any of the recommendations, the report was an investigative process.

As reported by BBC online, a spokesperson for the government 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.” We’re not entirely clear on the timeline of ‘soon’.

The Chief Executive of the RSPH, Shirley Cramer CBE, said: “We hope that our findings are recognised and included in the forthcoming White Paper from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport so that we can empower our young people to manage their relationship with social media in a way that protects and promotes their mental health and wellbeing.”

What do you think?

Should social media companies pay an extra 0.5% of their profits in tax? How do we balance the mental health cost with the amount of money the otherwise bring into the UK? Whose responsibility is it to monitor the social media activities of young people? Who will enforce the regulations? Will the companies pass on the cost of an additional tax to their users?

It’s a very positive step to be looking at these issues with social media now. Particularly the highlighting the need for more research and evidence into the deeper layers of the situation.