March 19, 2019
A new paper from a cross party committee in the UK government is proposing radical new measures to force social media companies, such as Twitter and Facebook, to be more socially responsible, especially when it comes to their younger users.
The paper, which sets forward a plan for the UK government to adopt, make suggestions that include a tariff on companies to fund further social media research, as well as a compulsory duty of care that must be followed.
The suggestions are based on the committee's findings that platforms are failing their younger users, and proliferating poor mental health and self image.
What was the Aim of the Report?
The UK government report, which was commissioned and overseen by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Media and Young People's Mental Health and Wellbeing, aimed to uncover the risks of social media to young people. The concerns from the group center around the sudden rise in popularity of social media use. The committee report argues there has been insufficient legislation and research into the effects of social media – it wants to correct this, starting with the recommendations made by this paper.
The study found some alarming perceptions of social media when it surveyed young account holders about their usage. For example, 46% of girls reported that social media had a negative impact on their self esteem. The report also highlighted that 12% of children who spend no time on social media were found to have mental health issues, compared to 27% for those who spent more than three hours a day using social media.
The report also identified that social media perpetuated and praised certain beauty standards. It argues that this encourages harmful behaviours in young people, such as eating disorders.
Is All Social Media Bad?
While the report certainly had some scathing things to say about social media, it also identified many positives when surveying young people and understanding how they use the various platforms.
For example, social media was found to provide young people with a good source of health information, bypassing traditional avenues of speaking to family or friends which could lead to embarrassment. It was also credited with enhancing social connections and supporting learning.
The committee also recognised that social media provides a platform for self expression, and that it removed physical barriers for those feeling isolated and lonely.
What Recommendations Does the Paper Make?
The report makes four clear recommendations for the UK government:
- Adopt a duty of care – Social media companies should adhere to a statutory code of conduct to protect registered UK users under the age of 24, with Ofcom (The Office of Communications) to act as a regulator.
- Create a Social Media Health Alliance – Designed to continue research into the impacts of social media, the alliance would be funded by a compulsory 0.5% levy on the profits of social media platforms.
- Government Guidance on social media use – A call for the government to publish advice for those aged 24 and under, recommending against excessive social media use.
- Commission more research – It appeals for the UK government to carry out further research into social media use, including whether or not addiction to social media should be classed as an official disease recommendation.
It should be noted that at this point, these recommendations are just that – recommendations. They will need to be approved by UK parliament before they can be enforced.
UK Government's Spotlight on Social Media
The paper isn't the first UK government-backed report into social media. It's not even the first this year. Last month, the UK's Department of Culture, Media and Sport published a report on Fake News and the part that social media companies play in its proliferation.
While several high profile platforms were mentioned, it was Facebook which came in for the most criticism. CEO Mark Zuckerberg was targeted in particular – the report stated that he “failed to show [the] levels of leadership that should be expected from someone who sits at the top of one of the world's biggest companies.”
The earlier report also made similar suggestions to this latest one, including that companies should be regulated be an independent body, to stem the flow of misinformation, and hold these organizations accountable. It also suggested that a levy should be introduced, with the platforms funding the body themselves.
Whatever happens with social media in the UK, it seems that the government will ultimately regulate them, and make them pay for the privilege.
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