Insights House of Commons Science and Technology Committee publishes report on the impact of social media and screen use on young people’s health

Essentially, the Committee’s report concludes that social media companies should be subject to a legal duty of care to help protect young people’s health and wellbeing when accessing their sites.

The report highlights the benefits of social media, while also revealing the potential risks children face when accessing social media. The report suggests what can be done to protect young users when they are online.

The Committee says that figures produced by Ofcom indicate that 70% of 12–15-year olds have a profile on a social media, while the OECD reports that 94.8% of 15-year olds in the UK used social media sites before or after school. The Committee’s inquiry examined whether the growing use of social media and screens among children was healthy or harmful, the evidence base for such claims, and whether any new measures or controls were required.

The Committee concludes that social media companies should be subject to a formal legal duty of care to their users.

While the Committee heard from witnesses who stated that social media can have a positive impact, the evidence received also pointed towards the potential negative effects of social media on the health and emotional wellbeing of young people.

These ranged from damage to sleep patterns and body image, to bullying, grooming and “sexting”. Although these risks existed before social media, its rise has helped to facilitate them, especially child abuse. The National Crime Agency reported that referrals it received from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children had “increased by 700% over the last four years”. The Committee says that despite these shocking statistics, “the quality and quantity of academic evidence on the effects of social media remains low”.

The report also states that social media companies must be willing to share data with researchers, within the boundaries of data protection legislation, especially on those who are at risk from harmful behaviours. The Committee says that the Government should consider what legislation is required to improve researchers’ access to this type of data, to ensure that social media companies help protect their young users, identify those at risk and help improve current online safety measures.

The Committee also found that there is currently a loose patchwork of regulation and legislation in place, resulting in a “standards lottery”. The Committee says that this approach does very little to ensure that young people are as safe as possible when they go online. Key areas that are not currently the subject of specific regulation, identified by Ofcom, include:

  • platforms whose principal focus is video sharing, such as YouTube;
  • platforms centred around social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter; and
  • search engines that direct internet users towards different types of information from many internet services, such as Google and Bing.

The report recommends that a comprehensive regulatory framework, which clearly sets out the responsibilities of social media companies towards their users, must be created.

The Committee says that the Government’s forthcoming Online Harms White Paper and subsequent legislation, presents “a crucial opportunity to put a world-leading regulatory framework in place”. However, the Committee is concerned that the Government’s forthcoming framework may not be as coherent as it ought to be. The report recommends a package of measures that would form the basis of a comprehensive regulatory framework.

This would mean establishing a regulator to provide guidance on how to spot and minimise the harms that social media presents, as well take enforcement action when warranted. The Committee says that these enforcement actions must be supported by a strong sanctions regime in order to be effective.

The report also stresses the urgency with which the Government must act to tackle the current threat young users face. The Committee says that an “effective partnership” is needed, across civil society, technology companies, law enforcement, the Government and non-governmental organisations, aimed at ending child sexual exploitation and abuse online. The Committee recommends that the Government set itself an ambitious target to halve reported online child sexual exploitation in two years and eliminate it in four years. To read the Committee’s press release in full and to access the report, click here.