The “lawless landscape” of social media must be regulated to ensure young people are protected from graphic content that could damage their mental health, a group of MPs has said.
A report into the impact of social media on young people’s mental health concluded firms such as Facebook and Instagram should face a 0.5 per cent tax on their profits to fund a new Social Media Health Alliance.
It added a statutory code of conduct, enforced by Ofcom, should be established for any companies with users aged 24 or under to establish a formal duty of care.
The report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing also said research should be carried out to determine whether social media addiction should be classed as a disease.
The inquiry follows the controversy surrounding the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who committed suicide after being exposed to graphic self-harm material on social media.
Russell’s father blamed Instagram for his daughter’s death, sparking increased scrutiny over the way tech firms police material posted to their sites.
APPG chair Chris Elmore MP said: “I truly think our report is the wake-up call needed to ensure – finally – that meaningful action is taken to lessen the negative impact social media is having on young people's mental health.
“For far too long social media companies have been allowed to operate in an online wild west. And it is in this lawless landscape that our children currently work and play online. This cannot continue. As the report makes clear, now is the time for the government to take action.”
The report states that while social media can have positive effects, young people using the platforms are at risk of exposure to graphic material that could “glamorise” mental illness.
Roughly 27 per cent of children who are on social media sites for three or more hours a day have symptoms of mental ill health, the report found.
Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said: “This inquiry clearly highlights the serious and very real concerns of a variety of experts and young people.
“The overarching finding is the need for social media companies to have in place a duty of care to protect vulnerable users and the need for regulation which would provide much needed health and safety protection for what is a lawless digital playground.”
The report also called on the government to publish guidance for young people on how they can avoid excessive social media use.
A government spokesperson said: “The government will soon publish a white paper which will set out the responsibilities of online platforms, how these responsibilities should be met and what would happen if they are not.
“An internet regulator, statutory ‘duty of care’ on platforms, and a levy on social media companies are all measures we are considering as part of this work.”
A spokesperson for Twitter said: “At Twitter our primary objective is to serve and improve the health of the public conversation. This means surfacing more quality, credible content, building new policies and safety tools, and tackling issues such as abuse which detract from the health of the public conversation.
“We’ve introduced over 70 changes to achieve a healthier, safer Twitter. We will continue to build on this momentum with energy and a singular focus on protecting the customers we serve.”
Facebook has been contacted for comment.