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Psychiatrists demand social media firms hand over data

Growing evidence of a link between child social media use and poor mental health – but there are benefits too

Louise Prime

Friday, 17 January 2020

Social media companies must be forced to hand over their data for university research into the risks and benefits of social media, psychiatrists have demanded. They said that screen use is now integral to children and young people’s lives and although there are certain benefits from children and young people (CYP) using the internet, there is also growing evidence of an association between digital technology use and poor mental health – but without these data, it is hard to determine whether or not the link is causal.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) this morning published Technology use and the mental health of children and young people in which it explores the impact of screen time; and also the impact of different types of screen use on mental health including negative content, how vulnerable groups such as those with mental health problems and very young children might be affected, the potential for bullying and safeguarding issues, and the potential for addiction.

The College pointed out that social media and mobile technology have become “extensions of themselves” for CYP and offer many benefits, such as: finding information about physical and mental health and support from online services; obtaining information about their hobbies and interests and expressing their creativity online; for teens, helping them to develop and sustain friendships, and peer support; and many educational opportunities, which can help all children including those in low-income families.

But it also pointed out potential harms, such as social media users feeling “an overwhelming pressure to succeed”; anxiety about the future when viewing their friends’ lives online; potential increased risk of harms in some vulnerable young people (such as those with poor literacy, young carers or those who live in institutions); and, especially for those with mental health disorders, comparing themselves with others on social media and their mood being affected by ‘likes’ and comments.

The College’s recommendations for technology companies are that:

  • Social media platforms should flag up engagement with risky content and operate and offer a free direct hotline for at-risk or vulnerable individuals.
  • Social media companies should provide user-configurable controls (not in the cloud) that can block incoming content of the young person’s choosing (by default ‘full safety measures on’), and provide feedback on content they are planning to send (e.g. BBC Own It app for an example).
  • Social media companies should promote and contribute to mental health charities in home countries to support any vulnerable individuals
  • Gaming companies and social media platforms should regularly fund research related to their products, to be conducted by independent external bodies and provide on a regular basis user data for research purposes to academic institutions.
  • Funding of media literacy awareness campaign.

The RCPsych also recommended that questions about technology use should become a core part of biopsychosocial assessments in CYP, because the online world can be just as important to them as their offline world; and it urged psychiatrists to bear in mind the possible impact of technology use when CYP report difficulties in areas such as sleeping, academic performance, mood, behaviour or eating.

Report co-author Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the College’s child and adolescent faculty, said: “As a psychiatrist working on the frontline, I am seeing more and more children self-harming and attempting suicide as a result of their social media use and online discussions.

“We will never understand the risks and benefits of social media use unless the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram share their data with researchers. Their research will help shine a light on how young people are interacting with social media, not just how much time they spend online.

“Self-regulation is not working. It is time for government to step-up and take decisive action to hold social media companies to account for escalating harmful content to vulnerable children and young people.”

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