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.
The report’s main recommendations include:
- creating a Social Media Health Alliance, funded by a 0.5% tax on the profits of social media companies, to fund research and draw up clearer guidance for the public
- establishing a duty of care on all social media companies with registered UK users aged 24 and under
- reviewing whether the “addictive” nature of social media is sufficient to classify it as an official disease
- commissioning robust research into understanding how social media affects young people’s mental health
The report, written with the Royal Society for Public Health, says companies like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube were starting to address health harms, but there was still room for improvement.
The notion of a tax of 0.5% is an interesting one – it should generate a lot of dollars, but there is a question of who takes that tax money – if it’s the government then I found this article by James Forrest interesting. Not only did he have a very different experience in using social media when he moved to Denmark from the USA (so, so much as we see it as a global issue, culturally there are different experiences), but he sees ‘four towers of responsibility for dealing with this issue’:
- Government: This is the least appealing. Having a government body take control of content distribution has warning signs written all over it but we have already seen this practice in China so it is not unthinkable, just maybe not ideal.
- Private Companies: This is where the most positive change could happen. Imagine a world that took inspiration from B&H and just shut down at appropriate times for their products. Do we need all of the web open, all the time? I think not. More below
- Venture Capitalists: So many addictions issues can be traced to what makes VCs money?—?Monthly Active Users, Daily Active Users, Stickiness, Repeat Visits, etc. What if we celebrated, and rewarded value based investors who invested in healthy use over mass consumption?
- Individuals: (pictured above) This is extremely effective but takes real savvy and an acute awareness of what is good and bad for us which is not necessarily what humans are good at, well, except the Fredricksons.
So there’s a question of who collects the money (also about tax avoidance), and also how the research money is distributed. As a researcher, I’m taking it as a given that research into this is good – but I think much of the conversation about young people, social media, mental health, screentime, etc is driven by fear (which is why I wrote Raising Children in a Digital Age – I need time for a new version, but it’s still largely what I’d say), rather than evidence-based understanding. It’s important to listen to young people – and also observe – as, as Sonia Livingstone has shown (see p166 of my book):
The EU Kids Online project discovered that nearly half of the children questioned were happy to describe themselves as addicted (if no specific definition was offered), as in many ways the term is seen as a “badge of honour”. It was also found that only about 10 per cent demonstrated true signs of addiction.
And you’ve probably noticed your friends saying how ‘addicted’ they are, yet they are fully functioning adults, and young people have been shown to be wise users of social media if the culture around it – we definitely need more nuance around this topic.
If we, therefore, are going to fund research, there then needs to be a strong group looking at how that money is allocated, and thinking about the questions that need to be asked – the assumption at the moment still seems to be that screentime is harmful, and that people are addicted to it (despite other in depth research) – so research needs to continue to ask if this is the case, and not assume that it is problematic. It also needs to look at the culture around the issue – austerity, pressure to perform, etc are all problematic, social media may amplify issues that were already problematic (e.g. I can pick up a book and read it for hours but is that addiction?, bullying happens particularly around teenage years – social media can amplify this, but also can it help manage this…)
With Kim Heyes, I have just submitted a bid to Facebook to look at hate/harmful speech within the faith context:
Proposal Summary: Hate and harmful speech has been synonymous with faith communities over the past few years (Moon, 2018). Social media has been found to facilitate this, and trolling and salacious comments can lead to extreme incidents (Mondal et al, 2018). Using a mixed methods approach encompassing surveys, virtual ethnography and interviews analysed through quantitative analysis and qualitative comparative analysis, the researchers aim to identify what words constitute hate and harm within faith communities on Facebook. Policy will then be developed around these words to identify real hate and harmful speech, and what should be done to eliminate such practices.
Not forgetting over the last few days that my friend Andrew Graystone has gone viral in his gentle show of support for Muslims outside a Mosque.
I’m not sure how helpful I find the language of a ‘lawless wild west’, as everything online is already subject to legal policies, although there are questions of jurisdiction, and of how effective making policies work in practice, but yes, the social media companies definitely don’t get a free pass for their part in creating a healthy online environment, and I’m happy to see that evidence/research is being seen as a solution!
I’ve just spoken to Premier Radio about whether social media platforms should be taxed:
[The audio will be added here later]
You can listen to the whole programme here.
Digiexplorer (not guru), Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing @ Manchester Metropolitan University. Interested in digital literacy and digital culture in the third sector (especially faith). Author of ‘Raising Children in a Digital Age’, regularly checks hashtag #DigitalParenting.