Social media data needed for ‘harm’ research, say doctors


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Data from social-media companies would help research into mental-health risks, the report says

Leading UK psychiatrists say they will never understand the risks and benefits of social media use on children’s mental health unless companies hand over their data to researchers.

Tech companies must be made to share data and pay a tax to fund important research, they say in a report.

There is growing evidence internet use can harm mental health but research is still lacking, it adds.

An independent regulator for online safety is planned by the government.

The report, by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, calls on the regulator to require social-media companies to share data on how children and young people are using the likes of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter – not just how much time they spend online.

The data collected would be anonymous, the report says.

‘Bleak world normalised’

Ian Russell, who believes Instagram was partly responsible for his daughter Molly taking her life aged 14, is backing the calls.

The types of images his daughter looked at on social media before she died included ones that suggest depression “will inevitably lead to suicide” and “normalise a dark, bleak world” which children “get sucked into”, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He said 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”.

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Molly Russell died in 2017 after seeing content about suicide on social media

There can be many positives to children using technology, such as online support, instant communication with friends and access to information, but screen time can also be potentially harmful to health, psychiatrists say.

For example, online content can be distressing and children can become addicted to screens at the expense of sleep, exercise and family time.

Research was still fragmented but initial evidence of “negative physical, mental health and cognitive associations” required further inter-disciplinary, nationally funded research, the report states.

‘Hold to account’

Most social media platforms say users must be at least 13 years old to have an account, but research has suggested many younger children bypass these restrictions.

Report co-author Dr Bernadka Dubicka, who chairs the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said she was seeing a growing number of children self-harming and attempting suicide as a result of their use of social media and online discussions.

She told the Today programme research was “hampered” by the lack of access to social media data, leading to “double standards” in how young people are protected online compared with offline.

“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,” she said.

Dr Dubicka also called for a tax on social media companies “that is proportional to their global turnover” to pay for research.

The government has already said it will create an independent regulator for online safety from April, as part of a package of measure to keep UK users safe online, known as the Online Harms White Paper.

The regulator will be able to demand companies write reports outlining how they protect people online, a spokesman said.

The reports will then be made public so that parents and children “can make informed decisions about their internet use”, the spokesman added.

There are also plans to introduce a 2% tax rate against the sales large digital companies make in the UK.

Tech UK, which represents technology companies, said data, in isolation, “will rarely provide the full picture”.

“Industry consistently partners with researchers, academics and charities on a range of issues relating to their products and services, including a recent significant partnership with the Samaritans to deepen the understanding of how people are engaging with harmful online content,” deputy chief executive Anthony Walker said.

What is the advice to parents?

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For children under the age of one:

For two- to five-year-olds:

  • ensure any screen time is part of a varied and balanced day, including physical activity and face-to-face conversation
  • spend at least three hours a day on physical activity
  • children should spend no more than one hour sitting watching or playing with screens

For five- to 11-year-olds:

  • develop a plan with your child for screen time and try to stick to it
  • ensure children have a balance of activities in the day, with physical activity, face-to-face conversation and tech-free times
  • encourage mealtimes to be tech free
  • ensure you have spoken to your children about how to keep safe online, check they are keeping safe and make it clear you will support them if they feel unsafe or upset online
  • try to ensure there are no screens in the bedroom at night

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For 11- to 16-year- olds:

  • develop a plan or check your existing one is still appropriate
  • encourage a balance of physical activity, face-to-face social time, schoolwork and family time
  • encourage mealtimes to be tech free
  • keep having conversations about keeping safe online and offer space to talk about upsetting things teenagers might see online
  • make it clear you will support them if they feel unsafe or upset online
  • try to ensure there are no screens in the bedroom at night

Source: Royal College of Psychiatrists

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, said it was “shocking” so little had been done to protect vulnerable young people.

“There has been an exponential rise in the numbers of people contacting our helpline in recent years who have self-harmed, now comprising 70% of our callers, some directly linked to the 24-7 pressures of social media,” she said.

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