1.Adults and children are spending ever-increasing amounts of time ‘online’. Across the world, every 60 seconds an estimated 156 million emails are sent, 3.8 million search requests are made on Google and two million minutes of calls are made via Skype, with the average internet user now spending “around 6 hours each day using internet-powered devices and services”. Much of this time is also spent on social media. While there is no agreed definition of social media, we have understood it to include “websites and apps that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking”. We also recognise that the lines have blurred between different types of online media, with some gaming sites, for example, now involving social networking.We are social’s Global Digital report estimated that more than 3 billion people globally use social media each month, while in Great Britain the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that 66% of all adults aged 16+, and 96% in the 16–24 age group, had used social networking within the last three months.
2.Children’s engagement with social media is similarly high and is increasing. Figures produced by the ONS show that in 2010–11, 8.6% of children (aged 0–15 years) reported spending more than three hours on social networks on a normal school day, rising to 12.8% of children in 2015–16. Elsewhere, data compiled by the OECD showed that young people in the UK were extensive users of both the internet in general, and social media in particular. In 2015, 24.1% of 15 year olds in the UK spent more than 6 hours, outside of school, online, compared to an OECD average of 16.2%, while 94.8% of 15 year olds used social media sites before or after school. At the same time, England has also witnessed a rise in the prevalence of ‘mental disorders’ in children aged 5–15 years, from 9.7% in 1999 to 11.2% in 2017.
3.Statistics such as these have raised questions about the relationship between the increasing use of social media by children and its effects on their health and wellbeing. Our inquiry therefore set out to investigate whether the growing use of social media, and screens, among children is healthy or harmful, the evidence base for such claims, and whether any new measures or controls are required. We chose to focus on children since any positive or negative effects of social media, and screens, would be occurring alongside critical developmental and “social, biological, cognitive and psychological changes”, thus making it particularly important to shine a light on this area. We defined children in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as people under the age of 18.
4.Focusing on children also allowed us to avoid significant overlap with other Select Committee inquiries currently taking place in this area, including the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s examination of “Disinformation and ‘Fake News’”, the Home Affairs Committee’s inquiry into “Hate Crime and its violent consequences”, and the House of Lords Communications Committee’s inquiry into “The Internet: to regulate or not to regulate?”. Towards the end of our inquiry the Petitions Committee published its Report on “Online abuse and the experience of disabled people”. We commend the Committee’s work on highlighting the nature and effects of online abuse towards disabled people.
5.Our inquiry was launched in February 2018. We received over 170 pieces of written evidence and held six evidence sessions with a total of 37 witnesses, including academics, social media companies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), clinicians, the Metropolitan Police, and Ofcom. We also took evidence from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Mental Health, Inequalities and Suicide Prevention, Jackie Doyle-Price MP, and the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, Margot James MP.
6.We were committed to hearing from children and young people during our inquiry. As well as holding a formal oral evidence session with five young people, we held an outreach event with Welland Park School (a secondary school in Market Harborough). Pupils from Years 9 and 11 at Welland Park spoke about their experiences of using social media, and their school’s policy of ‘banning’ the use of mobile phones in school, unless authorised by a teacher (see Annex 2). The Parliamentary Education Centre also polled children visiting Parliament about their use of social media.
7.To extend this work further, we subsequently produced a ‘teacher’s pack’, made available to teachers through the Parliamentary Education Centre and circulated by Members of the House. The pack included a lesson plan for both primary and secondary school children and aimed to facilitate a discussion on their thoughts and use of social media. The same survey given to children visiting Parliament was also contained in the pack. We received over 3,000 responses to the survey from 21 schools across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (see Annex 3).
8.In addition, we:
We are grateful to everyone who took the time to contribute to our inquiry.
9.In May 2018, after we had launched our inquiry, the Government published the Response to its Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper. This set out the direction of travel for a regulatory approach towards social media companies and provided more detail on the proposed social media code of practice, as established under section 103 of the Digital Economy Act 2017. In its Response to the Green Paper, the Government outlined its intention to “publish a full White Paper later this year  as a precursor to bringing forward online safety legislation that will cover the full range of online harms”. Potential areas for legislation were identified as including “the code of practice, transparency reporting and online advertising”.
10.We have since learned that the Online Harms White Paper is due to be published “this winter” and specifically “before March” 2019, with legislation introduced in the next parliamentary session. Our Report is intended to inform the White Paper, though we expect that the Government will respond to our Report in the usual two-month response period. The Report is structured as follows:
11.The responsibility for ensuring the wellbeing of children when they are online is diffuse and is shared across the Government, industry, parents, carers, schools, young people and non-governmental organisations, each of whom has an essential role to play. While we discuss these responsibilities throughout our Report, we are also clear that the Government must take a leading role to instigate the types of changes that are urgently needed. Consequently, our recommendations are directed at the Government, as is the norm in Select Committee Reports. We also acknowledge, however, where other stakeholders—like social media companies and schools—have a vital role to play.
1 We are Social, , January 2018
2 Law Commission, , November 2018, HC 1682, p ix
3 The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has launched an inquiry into the growth of ‘immersive and addictive technologies’ and has explicitly asked young people and gamers for their views, see: https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/digital-culture-media-and-sport-committee/news/gamers-call-for-evidence-17–19/
4 We are social, , January 2018
5 Office for National Statistics, , August 2017. The ONS appears to use social networking and social media interchangeably.
6 Office for National Statistics, , March 2018
7 OECD , OECD publishing Paris, 2017
8 NHS Digital, , November 2018, p8
9 Daniel Kardefelt-Winther,. Innocenti Discussion Paper 2017–02, UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, Florence, p9
11 Digital, Communication, Media and Sport Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2017–19, , HC 363;Home Affairs Committee, —inquiry ongoing; Petitions Committee, First Special Report of Session 2017–19, , HC 1459; House of Lords Communication Committee, —inquiry ongoing.
12 See, for example, Liz Kendall MP ()
13 HM Government, , May 2018
14 Digital Economy Act,
15 HM Government, , May 2018, p 3
17 Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Oral evidence: The work of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, HC 361 Wednesday 24 October 2018, Qq 258–259
Published: 31 January 2019