Force social media companies to hand over their data for research into the harms and benefits of social media use, says new report

Press release
16 January 2020

Social media companies should be compelled to hand over their data to universities for independent research into the risks and benefits of social media use, says a new report published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

The challenges posed by social media to the mental health of children and young people have exploded in recent times. The tragic suicide of teenager Molly Russell, who died after viewing harmful content online, led to calls for stricter rules to protect users from ‘online harms.’ Her father, Ian, backs the College’s report.

Last year, the government announced plans to set-up an online safety regulator to improve internet safety. The College’s call would see that regulator empowered by government to compel social media companies to hand over their data.

The Prime Minister confirmed recently that his government would go ahead with the proposed 2% levy on the UK revenues of major tech companies in April, despite the possible trade backlash from US President, Donald Trump.  

But the College’s report argues that the ‘Turnover Tax’ must go further and be applied to the international turnover of social media companies. Some of the money raised would be used to fund research and training for clinicians, teachers and others working with children and young people.

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists and co-author of the report, said: “As a psychiatrist working on the frontline, I am seeing more and more children self-harming and attempting suicide as a result of their social media use and online discussions. 

“We will never understand the risks and benefits of social media use unless the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram share their data with researchers. Their research will help shine a light on how young people are interacting with social media, not just how much time they spend online.

“Self-regulation is not working. It is time for government to step-up and take decisive action to hold social media companies to account for escalating harmful content to vulnerable children and young people.”

The data collected would be anonymous and include the nature of content viewed, as well as the amount of time users are spending on social media platforms. 

While the report - ‘Technology use and the mental health of children and young people’ - shows there is growing evidence of an association between social media use and poor mental health, it says the lack of research on the connection between mental health and technology makes it difficult to identify causality.

Ian Russell, who authored the report’s foreword, said: “Two years ago Molly’s suicide smashed like a wrecking ball into my family’s life. I am in no doubt that the graphic self-harm content and suicide encouraging memes on Molly’s social media feeds helped kill her.

“Without research using data from social media companies we will never know how content can lead our children and young people to self-harm or, in the most tragic cases, take their own lives. The government must enact these calls from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.”

The report highlights the benefits to children and young people using the internet and social media. These include obtaining information on physical and mental health, receiving support from online services and developing and sustaining friendships.

Despite these benefits, recent NHS Digital data[i] suggests that young people with mental health problems may be more vulnerable to the harmful effects of social media.

The report points to evidence that increased social media use may result in poorer mental health, particularly in girls. It also shows internet use can have a negative influence on children and young people by normalising self-harm and discouraging disclosure or seeking help from a mental health professional.

Similar concerns have also been raised regarding the potentially devastating impact of harmful content around eating disorders, the deadliest mental illness.

The government’s consultation on its Online Harms White Paper closed on 26th June 2019. It is expected to respond by the end of January. 

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