Social media addiction "should be considered a disease", MPs have said, amid growing concerns over the impact social networks are having on users’ mental health. And they are calling for a tax on social media companies' profits, saying the firms are operating in "an online wild west".
The report* by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Media and Young People's Mental Health and Wellbeing, chaired by Labour’s Chris Elmore and the Conservative William Wragg, recognised that social media had brought many benefits to society, including improved access to information on public health.
However, they call for a 0.5% levy on social media networks’ profits to fund research, educational initiatives and establish clearer guidance for the public.
The report calls for further research on the effects of social media but said that scientific reports already suggest there was good reason to believe sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – which are constantly competing for users’ attention – could be having a damaging effect on children. The report was written with the assistance of the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), which endorsed its findings.
“It is paramount that we protect young people to ensure they are kept safe and healthy when they are online,” said the MPs, who believe the government should urgently fund long-term studies to see whether a clinical definition for social media addiction should be introduced.
Shirley Cramer, the chief executive of the RSPH, said: “This inquiry clearly highlights the serious and very real concerns of a variety of experts and young people. The overarching finding is the need for social media companies to have in place a duty of care to protect vulnerable users and the need for regulation which would provide much-needed health and safety protection for what is a lawless digital playground.”
She said extra research should be prioritised “to improve our understanding of the health harms, as well as benefits, from social media on our generation of digital natives, and that this research should be supported by industry itself”.
The report follows a year-long inquiry into the health impact of social media, and says the industry should do more to protect children and young people online.
The government is due to publish its own proposals within weeks. It says all kinds of steps are being explored to increase online safety.
The MPs took evidence from experts, charities, parents and young people. They found that although social media had many positive effects, such as acting as a supportive community and a place of learning, it could also expose young people to cyber-bullying, self-harm and feelings of low self-esteem.
The report acknowledged there was still a lack of robust scientific evidence that social media actually causes mental health problems in young people, but it said precautionary measures should be taken to minimise any potential harm.
Last month, the UK's chief medical officers issued guidance on screen time, saying children should take a break from screen-based activities every two hours and phones should be kept out of bedrooms at bedtime.
And the World Health Organization (WHO) has already proposed including gaming disorder in the next revision of its International Classification of Diseases manual, categorising it as a mental illness in which increasing priority is “given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities”.
For an individual to be diagnosed as having gaming disorder the WHO suggests an individual should have shown significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, or work lives due to computer games for at least 12 months. The MPs suggest a similar definition could apply to individuals who struggle with excessive social media use, if research found this was justified.
The report also calls on the UK government to issue formal health guidance on how those aged 24 and under can avoid excessive social media use. It also backs calls for social media companies to be forced to share anonymised data with researchers to help understand the impact of their products on young people.
The report also acknowledges a growing awareness of the tactics employed by tech companies to encourage repeated use of their services. The MPs said the government should look at “which design aspects of social media platforms are inherently detrimental to young people’s mental health and wellbeing”.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 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.”
*#NewFilters: to manage the impact of social media on young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Inquiry. March 2019.