Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has added fuel to the social media regulation debate, this week attacking tech giants for not doing enough to protect children’s mental health – and warning that regulation could follow. Will words translate into action – and is regulation the right way forward?
The government has ordered its chief medical officer to review the effects of social media on children’s wellbeing, health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced this weekend, warning big tech that the government is now considering laws to restrict children’s use of social media.
And, adding to the pressure, culture secretary Matt Hancock meets tech business this Thursday to demand how data of young people in particular is being protected. “If we cannot trust them to police themselves, we must take action. I will not hesitate to strengthen the law,” Hancock warned.
Writing in the Sunday Times, Hunt said he was worried that a generation was being exposed to the emotional side effects of social media prematurely, particularly in breaching terms and conditions on the minimum user age, which is normally 13.
In a letter to tech businesses, Hunt said “I fear that you are collectively turning a blind eye to a whole generation of children being exposed to the harmful emotional side effects of social media prematurely.
“This is both morally wrong and deeply unfair on parents, who are faced with the invidious choice of allowing children to use platforms they are too young to access, or excluding them from social interaction that often the majority of their peers are engaging in.”
Six months ago, Hunt met Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google on the issue. “For some time, I’d felt a growing sense of unease, both as a parent and as health minister, that these firms were not doing enough to protect young children from the harmful emotional side effects of social media,” he told the Sunday Times.
Hunt said he had met teenagers at a mental health unit whose illnesses had been exacerbated by social media, from bullying at school that turned into online abuse, to the damage to self-esteem caused by social comparisons online.
“If recent experience has told us anything, it is that technology must have safe limits — whether this is to preserve the integrity of our democracy, curtail the appalling rise of hate speech, or protect our children’s health and wellbeing,” he said.
Tech firms had told him they would produce practical solutions to three key issues:
- age verification – to reduce the thousands of children routinely breaching terms and conditions on minimum user age
- screen-time limits – to stop children spending a disproportionate amount of time online
- action to reduce cyber-bullying and abuse.
But, said Hunt, “since then there have been a lot of warm words – and a few welcome moves to improve children’s online protection – but the overall response to my challenge has been extremely limited, leaving me to conclude that a voluntary, joint approach has not been sufficient to deliver the safeguards we need to protect our children’s mental health.”
Hunt said he would now be working with Hancock “to explore what other avenues are open to use to pursue the reforms we need, before we publish our response to the internet safety strategy consultation in May.”
“We will not rule out legislation where it is needed,” he said. “To support this, I have also asked the chief medical officer to produce a landmark evidence review on the impact of technology and young people’s mental health.”
The health secretary said “the door remains open for the social media industry to work with government to make sure it becomes a force for good when it comes to our children’s mental health”. But he warned that “if these companies prove unwilling to do so, the government will not be deterred from taking action — and history, as well as the many advertisers and investors upon which they depend, will judge them harshly for this lack of moral leadership.”
Opponents of regulation say parents must take more responsibility for the time their children spend on social media, using widely available parental controls, as well as their own rules in the home limiting screen time – while others doubt the evidence base to justify regulation.
Writing in the Guardian on Monday, Oxford University psychologist Amy Orben said: “As a scientist working in this area, I can tell [chief medical officer] Dame Sally Davies now: the evidence this policy needs doesn’t exist. If she is not willing to ignore large parts of the scientific literature or exaggerate a minority of low-quality studies, her job to find the amount of ‘science’ to back up such significant state intervention will be impossible.”
A number of academic studies have pointed to evidence that social media does harm young people’s mental health – with Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter users saying they have feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.
Late last year, Facebook acknowledged for the first time that certain types of social media use can harm people’s mental health. But it essentially absolved itself from responsibility by saying people were using social tools the wrong way – insisting people would be happier if they engaged more with content.
Facebook and others are already facing growing calls for regulation, especially following the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal. And MPs on the digital, culture, media and sport committee are continuing with their inquiry into fake news.