A group of MPs is calling for a tax on social media companies’ profits, saying the firms are operating in “an online wild west”.
Their report, which follows a year-long inquiry into the health impact of social media, says the industry should do more to protect children and young people online.
The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing also said addiction to social media should potentially be classed as a disease and called for platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to be regulated by Ofcom and forced to adhere to a statutory code of conduct.
The code, which would establish rules around social media and known harms to young people – such as self-harm, disordered eating, low-self-esteem, lack of sleep and over-dependence on social media – should be in place by the end of October, it said.
The report called upon experts, charities, parents and young people. It found that although social media had many positive effects, such as acting as a supportive community and a place of learning, it could also expose young people to cyber-bullying, self-harm and feelings of low self-esteem.
“For far too long social media companies have been allowed to operate in an online ‘wild west’,” said Chris Elmore MP, chair of the APPG on Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing.
“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 acknowledged there was still a lack of robust scientific evidence that social media actually causes mental health problems in young people, but it said precautionary measures should be taken to minimise any potential harm.
The APPG said research should be carried out into whether the ‘addictive’ nature of social media should be officially classed as a disease by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The WHO already lists gaming disorder – such as addiction to video games – as a disease. On regulation, the APPG said the Government must now ‘establish a duty of care on all social media companies with registered UK users aged 24 and under’.
Shirley Cramer CBE, chief executive of RSPH, said the priority was regulation and a duty of care to protect vulnerable users in a “lawless digital playground”.
She also said she wanted to see industry supporting further research to improve our understanding of the health harms, as well as the benefits, from social media.
Cramer said: “We hope that our findings are recognised and included in the forthcoming White Paper from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport so that we can empower our young people to manage their relationship with social media in a way that protects and promotes their mental health and wellbeing.”