Jeremy Hunt thinks social media's as bad for kids as smoking and obesity

 
Lynsey Barber
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The health secretary Jeremy Hunt has claimed that social media can be as damaging to children as smoking or obesity in one of the starkest warning yet from the government that it is eyeing curbs on tech companies

He likened the effects on young people's mental health as "every bit as big a threat" as cigarettes and junk food and said "decisive and meaningful action" was needed soon.

Read more: This man helped build Facebook - now he says it's ripping society apart

The comments, made at the launch of a £5m programme for primary school teacher mental health training, come amid growing concern over the impact of smartphone use and and "always on culture" on society among both children and adults.

According to Ofcom, children aged between five and 15 now spend more than 15 hours a week online, on average. Among those over 12-years-old, that stands at more than 20, while even three and four-year-olds clock up nearly eight hours a week of time online.

“When evidence shows older children are spending 20 hours every week online, I worry that we’re sleepwalking into a situation where a whole generation spend huge chunks of their childhood online rather than investing in face-to-face relationships that help them grow up in a fully rounded way," said Hunt.

“My instinct, for some time, has been that this is every bit as big a threat to children’s mental health as things like smoking and obesity are for their physical health - and now the evidence suggests that high levels of social media use are indeed associated with high scores for mental ill health.”

Silicon Valley veterans who cashed in on the success of tech giants such as Facebook and Google have banded together to launch a new lobbying group - the Centre for Humane Technology - to raise concerns around the over use of technology in the most recent demonstration of a backlash over "big tech".

Read more: The "big tech" backlash has yet to reach Wall Street

Concerns have been raised about Facebook's Messenger Kids and YouTube's service directed at children in recent months.

Facebook founder and boss Mark Zuckerberg has been forced to admit that time spent on Facebook is not necessarily "time well spent". It follows a former early employee last year accusing the company of "ripping society apart" in one of the most high-profile digs at its power and influence to date.

And two of Apple's biggest shareholders have called on the iPhone maker to investigate the effects of smartphone "addiction" on young children.

The government has also put Silicon Valley under scrutiny over the spread of fake news and failures to tackle extremism. MPs will later today grill executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter over the influence of Russian-backed misinformation campaigns on the Brexit vote.

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