Social media: end self regulation, say MPs in report on children’s healthBMJ 2019; 364 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l486 (Published 31 January 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;364:l486
Social media companies must be subject to a formal legal duty of care to help protect young people’s health and wellbeing, a group of MPs has concluded.1
The Science and Technology Committee called on the UK government to create a comprehensive regulatory framework clearly setting out the responsibilities of social media companies towards their users.
In a report on the impact of social media and screen use on young people’s health the committee also called for a regulator to be appointed by the end of October 2019 to provide guidance on how to spot and minimise harms, monitor compliance with a code of practice, and take enforcement action when necessary. The regulator must be backed by a strong sanctions regime, the committee said.
The government is due to legislate on online harms in the next parliamentary session, but the committee was concerned that the government’s forthcoming framework may not be coherent enough.
Norman Lamb, committee chair, said, “The government must act to put an end to the current ‘standards lottery’ approach to regulation. We concluded that self regulation will no longer suffice. We must see an independent, statutory regulator established as soon as possible, one which has the full support of the government to take strong and effective actions against companies who do not comply.”
The committee received over 170 pieces of written evidence and held six evidence sessions with witnesses including academics, social media companies, non-government organisations, and clinicians. It also surveyed over 3000 young people and facilitated focus groups with students.
The committee heard from witnesses who said that social media can have a positive impact on young people but also highlighted a range of potential negative effects, including damage to sleep patterns and body image, bullying, grooming, and “sexting.”
It said that social media were not generally the root cause of the risk but helped to facilitate and amplify it. This was particularly apparent in the abuse of children online through social media. The National Crime Agency reported that the referrals it received from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children had “increased by 700% in the last four years.”
Live streaming of abuse was another major problem identified in the report. Figures produced by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that one in 10 children involved in video streaming had been asked to take off clothes.
The committee urged the government to commission research to establish the scale and prevalence of child sexual exploitation and abuse online—and then to set itself an ambitious target to halve this in two years and all but eliminate it in four years.
The report noted a lack of good quality published research on social media’s effects on young people, particularly regarding smartphones. It found even less focus in published research on who exactly was at risk and whether some groups were potentially more vulnerable than others.
It said that, “as a matter of urgency,” the government should commission research to identify who is at risk of harm online, why this is so, and what the long term consequences of that exposure are on young people.
And it called on social media companies to make anonymised, high level data available for research purposes to bona fide researchers, to establish a better understanding of social media’s effects on users.
Commenting on the report, Max Davie, officer for health promotion for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said, “The creation of a clear regulatory framework that sets out the responsibilities of social media companies towards their users is particularly welcome. But any regulatory system will require careful monitoring, as well as meaningful input from the users themselves—children and young people—to ensure it doesn’t stifle open discussion and prevent crucial safety advice reaching its vulnerable users.”