Social media firms should be forced to hand over their data to researchers to investigate the benefits and harms of social media use, a report by The Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned.
The challenges posed by social media to the mental health of children and young people have exploded in recent times, the RCP says, urging social media companies to be compelled to hand over their data to universities for independent research into the risks and benefits of social media use.
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," added Dr Dubicka.
The government announced plans to set-up an online safety regulator to improve internet safety last year. However, the College's recommendations would enable that regulator, empowered by government, to compel social media companies to hand over their data.
While the report shows that 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. 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.
The report stresses that there are benefits to children and young people using the internet and social media, including obtaining information on physical and mental health, receiving support from online services and developing and maintaining friendships.
Yet despite these benefits, recent NHS Digital data suggests that young people with mental health problems may be more vulnerable to the harmful effects of social media.
The report highlights evidence that increased social media use may result in poorer mental health, particularly in girls. Internet use can also have a negative influence on children and young people by normalising self-harm and discouraging disclosure or seeking help from a mental health professional. The report also raises concerns that have have already been raised regarding the potentially devastating impact of harmful content around eating disorders.
Teenager Molly Russell died after viewing harmful content online and her father, Ian, backs the College’s report. 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," he added.
The government’s consultation on its Online Harms White Paper closed on 26th June 2019 and the government is expected to respond by the end of January.
Technology use and the mental health of children and young people