Social media and screens have become ubiquitous in the lives of children. Figures produced by Ofcom indicated that 70% of 12–15 year olds have a profile on social media, while the OECD reported in 2015 that 94.8% of 15 year olds in the UK used social media sites before or after school. Social media has undoubtedly connected people around the world and provided unprecedented ways to communicate instantaneously. Yet concerns have been growing about its effects on our wellbeing, and particularly on the physical and mental health of children. With the Government set to legislate on Online Harms in the next parliamentary session, our Report considers:
First and foremost, providing unambiguous answers to our questions was hindered by the limited quantity and quality of academic evidence available. Social media is a relatively new phenomenon and, consequently, there is not yet a well-established body of research in this area examining its effects on children. Similarly, research on screens has tended not to focus on newer devices like smartphones. We found that the majority of published research did not provide a clear indication of causation, but instead indicated a possible correlation between social media/screens and a particular health effect. There was even less focus in published research on exactly who was at risk and if some groups were potentially more vulnerable than others when using screens and social media. Given the Government’s intention to legislate in this area, we are surprised to find that it has not commissioned any new, substantive research to help inform its proposals. We recommend that, as a matter of urgency, the Government should commission research to identify who is at risk of experiencing harm online and on social media, and why, and the longer-term consequences of that exposure on children. We also call on social media companies to make anonymised high-level data available, for research purposes, to bona fide researchers so that a better understanding of social media’s effects on users can be established. The Government should consider what legislation is required to improve researchers’ access to this type of data.
Notwithstanding these limitations, the absence of good academic evidence is not, in itself, evidence that social media and screens have no effect on young people. The potential links between social media, screens and health is an area of concern for parents, carers, teachers and children alike. While we heard about a variety of instances where social media could be a force for good, we also received evidence about some of the potential negative impacts of social media on the health and emotional wellbeing of children. These ranged from detrimental effects on sleep patterns and body image through to cyberbullying, grooming and ‘sexting’. Generally, social media was not the root cause of the risk but helped to facilitate it, while also providing the opportunity for a large degree of amplification. This was particularly apparent in the case of the abuse of children online, via social media. It is imperative that the Government leads the way in ensuring that an effective partnership is in place, across civil society, technology companies, law enforcement agencies, the Government and non-governmental organisations, aimed at ending child sexual exploitation (CSE) and abuse online. We recommend that the Government commissions research to establish its scale and prevalence and then sets itself an ambitious target to halve reported online CSE in two years and all but eliminate it in four years.
Children must, as far as practically possible, be protected from harm when accessing and using social media sites. At present, however, there is a patchwork of regulation and legislation in place, resulting in a “standards lottery” that does little to ensure that children are as safe as possible when they go online, as they are offline. This principle—to protect children from harm when on social media sites—must be enshrined in legislation as social media companies having a ‘duty of care’ towards its users who are under 18. Social media companies must also be far more open and transparent regarding how they operate and particularly how they moderate, review and prioritise content.
To achieve this, the Government should introduce, through new primary legislation, a statutory code of practice for social media companies, to provide consistency on content reporting practices and moderation mechanisms. This should be accompanied by a requirement for social media companies to publish detailed Transparency Reports every six months. Furthermore, when content that is potentially illegal under UK law is reported to a social media company, it should have to review the content, take a decision on whether to remove, block or flag that item (if appropriate), and relay that decision to the individual/organisation reporting it within 24 hours, such as now occurs in Germany. We believe that Ofcom is well-placed to perform the duties of the regulator and recommend that the Government resources Ofcom accordingly.
Finally, the digital literacy and resilience of children, as well as their teachers and parents, must be improved to help safeguard children from risks and harms when using social media. PSHE education must be made mandatory by the Government for primary and secondary school pupils and should deliver an age-appropriate understanding of, and resilience towards, the harms and benefits of the digital world.
Published: 31 January 2019