Skip to main content

Addictive Technology

Volume 648: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered addictive technology.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to introduce a debate that I feel is of growing relevance. Our discussion could go in many different directions, but I will focus mainly on the use of smartphones, apps and social media. How often these days do we hear the phrase, “Get off your phone!”? It could be uttered between two strangers in a restaurant; it could be any one of us saying it to a partner or a child, or having them say it to us. We only have to get on a bus, walk down the street or sit in the House of Commons Chamber to see examples of how engrossed we have all become in devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Last September, the iPhone celebrated its 10th birthday. At the time, my first thought was, “Has it really only been 10 years?” I do not think that was a matter of misjudging the passage of time; instead, I was reflecting on the behavioural, social and cultural impact of the smartphone revolution that began with the iPhone, and wondering how all of these changes could have happened in the last 10 years. The urge to check our phone while we are waiting for a friend to arrive, or when we are bored, watching TV or even at dinner, is like a new muscle reflex for many—including me. When we forget our phone and sense the absence of its weight in our pocket or bag, it feels like much more than just a missing piece of technology. I cannot be the only one who has felt the panic of looking for my phone, only to realise that I am holding it in my hand.

In the run-up to this debate I asked Parliament’s Digital Outreach Service to collect the views of members of the public on whether they felt their own relationship with technologies such as mobile phones, tablets, social media and videogames was having a negative effect on their lives. One respondent, Keith, said:

“As I type I’m tapping on a cell phone waiting for my bus, so I suppose it passes time. On the other hand, I nearly missed it posting this message, so yes is the answer.”

That is probably a typical experience for many people. Let us be in no doubt that these devices are incredibly useful tools. They make day-to-day tasks more convenient and we get a lot of enjoyment out of them. They give us the power to connect to our friends and families, no matter where they are, all around the world. The question is: are they making us connect less with the people right in front of us?

From the 2016 US presidential election, Brexit and the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the increase in online abuse and bullying and the growing evidence that smartphones, their apps and social media are addictive and causing behavioural changes rather than adapting to demand, we are seeing a darker side to these technologies, which highlights how we may have misplaced our sense of control. I want to use this debate to discuss how to live well with the technology we use every day.

It is becoming clearer that there are features of smartphones, the apps that they run and social media that are inherently addictive. Recently, former technology designers for companies such as Facebook, Apple and Google have admitted that the technologies and apps they designed have contributed to technological addiction. Many designers are driven to create addictive app features by the business models of the big companies that employ them, and let us remember that many apps have in-app purchases, so in some cases there are financial consequences for users. Aza Raskin, a former technology developer for Mozilla, which makes the popular Firefox web browser, has described the way in which apps and interfaces are made as if the tech companies are

“taking behavioural cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface”.

He also said:

“Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally…a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting.”

Mr Raskin helped to design the software function known as infinite scroll, which allows users to scroll through pages and pages of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram content without having to click “next page.” He is not alone. Leah Pearlman, the co-inventor of Facebook’s “like” button, raised concerns that the design of modern personal technology and digital interfaces are habit-forming, in some cases leading to addiction. She said:

“When I need validation, I go to check Facebook… I’m feeling lonely, let me check my phone. I’m feeling insecure, let me check my phone.”

Ms Pearlman tried to quit Facebook after resigning her role at the company, but she found it hard. She realised she was

“kind of addicted to the feedback.”

That is someone who worked for one of these companies.

We could be experiencing a temporary blip, such as when television was first introduced. Perhaps our relationships with these devices will normalise. However, many of us will recognise these concerns in our lives.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important and timely debate. Does he agree with Arianna Huffington, who wrote the books “Thrive” and “The Sleep Revolution” in which she talks about technology and how in many cases we take better care of our smartphones than ourselves?

That is right, and I will take up the hon. Lady’s reading recommendation. We all have experience of mindlessly scrolling through our Twitter feeds and finding that our mood is affected by what we see, but, as with many things, it is often young people who are affected the most. I know many parents who are very concerned about the digital world their children inhabit for much of the time. To a certain extent, that is a natural concern for parents of each new generation, but that does not mean it is unwarranted. The sheer rate of advancement in the technology now available means that young people are growing up in an environment that is completely alien even to relatively young parents, and we do not yet fully understand the consequences.

The impact on mental health for all of us is becoming clearer, with new studies emerging at increasing pace showing a link between technology overuse and poorer mental health. Large-scale studies in the US have shown that adolescents who spend more time on new media, including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones, are more likely to report mental health issues than those who spend less time on such platforms. By comparing those studies, researchers were able to point towards a relationship between depressive symptoms and overuse of technology, particularly among women and girls.

That is just one study of many, and the science is still evolving. Compared with our understanding of other negative health habits, the timeframe for research is relatively short. We have not been using these devices for long enough to fully understand their impact. It took decades for it to emerge that smoking was an addictive habit detrimental to our health. Of course, smoking and modern technology are not directly comparable, but technology is both an opportunity and a risk, and we must ensure we get more of the former and less of the latter.

I hope Members agree that tech companies have a duty of care to the consumers who use their products. I welcome Apple’s recent intervention to introduce a screen time function that allows consumers to monitor and restrict their time or use of certain apps. I hope that will be rolled out on a wider basis by other tech companies. I also hope that social media companies and app creators such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp will stop focusing on developing new ways to demand our attention and push constant notifications at us and start developing ways that make it easier for us to switch off.

In the US, we have seen the rise of the so-called “dumb phone” that can be used in conjunction with a smartphone, allowing users to leave their smartphone at home and go about their business for the day with a featureless phone that only makes and receives calls from the same number. Perhaps we need an easier method than deleting all of our apps to turn off our smartphones’ multiple features so that they operate just as phones.

The big tech companies could be doing much more both to help us mitigate the negative effects of their technology and to help us understand it. In much the same way as the gambling industry and the alcohol industry contribute funds from their profits to mitigate the negative effects of their products, I see no reason why the big technology companies could not contribute to some sort of fund that supports research into the health impact of their products and services and helps to promote healthy use of their technology. That could apply to everything from using a smartphone to combating online abuse and bullying. I hope the Chancellor will be willing to look at that further.

Many tech companies do conduct their own research, and that is good, but these products need to be scrutinised by independent research. No industry should be able to mark its own homework; that applies as much to Google, Apple and Facebook as it does to any other industry. What I am calling for is cross-party consensus that we have not necessarily got our approach right and that more needs to be done to understand the potential impact of technology on our lives. People need power and control over their use of these technologies, instead of feeling that they have become captured by them.

The conversation needs to continue. I am considering setting up an all-party parliamentary group to further these discussions, and if Members in the Chamber would be interested in joining such a group, perhaps they could let me know. The Government have asked the chief medical officer to look at guidance on technology use and they may be considering setting up an internet regulator. I would be interested to hear if the Minister has any update on that in the context of the debate as well as any other thoughts she has on this issue.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) on leading such an interesting debate. It seems that technology has been developing at such a fast rate in the last decade or so that politicians, parents, teachers and many others, as well as rules and legislation, are struggling to keep up. With mobile phones now an integral part of life for most people, it is easy to understand how some may have become addicted to, or at least over reliant on, their tech.

In our work as politicians, we are expected to have a constant presence online, processing thousands of emails and absorbing thousands of messages on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, to name just some of the platforms on which some of us operate. The same is true for those in many roles in the private and public sectors—and that is before we take into account how we use technology in our private lives or in education. Screen time is almost inevitable today, so I will focus my remarks on the effects of too much of it, regardless of whether we use the term “addiction.”

It is well known that social media has an effect on mental health. My right hon. friend the Health and Social Care Secretary highlighted that when he announced this month that the chief medical officer is reviewing the impact that excessive social media can have on children’s mental health. I very much look forward to reading Dame Sally Davies’s findings, and I hope they will help parents—especially those who do not have a good grasp of social media and the internet—to understand better how to manage its use. It is unfortunately not surprising that on platforms where we show only the best of ourselves, our young people find it ever harder to feel as though they are achieving and content with their lives.

It is important not to vilify technology and blame it for all our social ills. Phones helped to bring about revolution in the Arab spring and to document the atrocious use of chemical weapons in Syria, and they have provided us with access to information that our predecessors could only have dreamed about. Social media has brought us all closer together and enabled us to stay in touch with our families and friends in a way that otherwise would not have been possible. People are now much more engaged with their representatives and the political system, which no longer feel so out of reach. Those benefits should concentrate our minds on ensuring that addiction to tech does not get out of hand and that people are trained to help when it does. In my constituency in the Scottish borders, the council is training young people in mental health first aid, which I hope will become an exemplar policy to others and go some way towards reducing the risks of tech.

I welcome the debate. I am more than happy to support the bid from the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West for an all-party parliamentary group and I again congratulate him on securing this important debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I again congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) on initiating the debate. It is very timely, given how much discussion there has been recently about the impact of technology.

Let me give my own perspective. At home, my partner and I have instituted “no phones after 10 o’clock” and “no phones at the dinner table” rules. I have lost count of the number of times that I have been in restaurants and seen couples eating their dinner and then going on their phones and not even speaking to each other. I remember being particularly anxious about social media just before the summer recess. I was reflecting on it when I heard a BBC Radio Scotland programme in which the impact of social media was discussed. A guy whose name I have forgotten spoke about how he was starting to see his life through social media: we was looking at every experience he was having in the context of how it would be represented on his various feeds—Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I thought, “Oh my goodness, I do exactly the same thing.” That really struck me and it made me stop and reflect, so when I was away on holiday in the Scottish highlands, I tried not to use my mobile phone and not to post online. I was not terribly successful. I even said in a post online that I was not going to be engaging with social media and I still failed, because I had a constituency issue that I needed to deal with.

Selkirk (John Lamont) made excellent points about the way in which people now engage with their elected representatives through social media. I think that it is a very positive thing, but I have to say that when we are on various platforms and getting messages in our personal accounts as well as our MP accounts, sometimes it can be overwhelming. More and more I have found that my staff are managing not only an email inbox but a Facebook account inbox and checking the personal messages on Twitter. On a few occasions, I have bumped into people and they have said, “Oh, I sent you a message about x or y issue and I haven’t had a response.” I say to them, “Did you email me?” and they say, “No, no. I sent you a message on Facebook,” so I have to go and search for that message and it has perhaps ended up in a different filter.

We can all reflect on the impact that technology has had on our lives. The World Health Organisation declared “gaming disorder” an addictive behaviour disorder in June 2018. It is interesting to note that 28 academics wrote to the WHO, protesting that that was poorly informed by science. That feeds into the point made by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West about a lack of research. His proposal to make gaming companies feed into a fund that properly funds research is really important. We have to remember that many companies, particularly in Scotland, have developed games and make a significant contribution to the economy, but this is about balance. I was a gamer myself as a kid. I still have my Nintendo and my Sega Master System lying in a dusty heap in my mum’s loft. I remember having those very defined thumbs and playing old games such as California Games, but we have moved on a lot and now so much is on our phones. My four-year-old niece is champing at the bit to get a mobile phone, and her parents are resisting that, but she knows how to use every piece of technology in the house.

We have to face the reality that smartphones and smart technology are part of our everyday lives. The question is how we ensure that there is a balance. The world of play has been diminished by technology. People’s fears about letting their children out have increased, although I am not sure that there is really any more threat than there was when I was a kid and did not have a mobile phone. I would go to the local park and be out for hours, and my mother would phone round all the houses to find out where I was. We are now in a very different world, in which parents can contact their children 24/7. That is good in many respects, but we have to look at the wider issue of childhood obesity and children perhaps not going out to play in the same way as they did before.

The debate has been very interesting. I like the hon. Gentleman’s idea of setting up an all-party parliamentary group. I hope that the tech companies will come and discuss that with him. He made a point about what people see now on social media. It was interesting to see the report from the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. It is not getting as good a response from the Government as it should be, and it would be good to hear the Minister address some of the issues around fake news—the issues that we saw during the EU referendum. It would be good to hear those being properly addressed, because there is a real risk as people move away from traditional media outlets, away from newspapers, on to social media. We must ensure that the news and information that people get online and on their social media platforms is absolutely accurate and not fake.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) on securing the debate and on making a brilliant opening speech; he set out the issues with clarity and great purpose.

My hon. Friend started with the fact that it is just 10 years since Steve Jobs gave the world the iPhone. I was intrigued to discover, when researching for this debate, that when he introduced that new technology, he made extremely sure that he did not give it to his children. We now face a period in which we will be having this debate with increasing frequency. Statistics that I have seen show that some 40% of people now have some kind of internet-based addiction, whether that involves checking emails, scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, or online gambling. Indeed, figures that I came across this morning show that Generation Z—just slightly younger than yourself, Sir Edward—are now exposed to some 13 hours of media every single day.

We have to recognise that the technology companies that now pervade everyday life will need a very different kind of regulation in the years to come. I was delighted to meet representatives of the Centre for Humane Technology, from the United States, earlier this afternoon. They had a very good analogy. They were looking at various tech scandals around the world and made the point that sometimes, when we look at those symptoms, they are hurricanes, but the addictive technology at the centre is actually more akin to climate change. What we need to do as a legislature is figure out how to introduce a new regulatory regime that will control that climate change. As Tim Berners-Lee said,

“social networks—they are manmade. If they are not serving humanity, they can and should be changed.”

Nearly 30% of children who spend more than three hours on social network sites show symptoms of poor mental health; that is compared with just 12% of children who spend no time on social network sites. It is becoming increasingly obvious to all of us that there is some link between the use of social media, the overuse of social media and, frankly, the mental illness epidemic among many of our young people.

We are also beginning to see significant differences in the ways in which people from different income groups relate to social media. I think that it was Ipsos that this week published research showing that children from better-off families use social media for three and a bit hours less than those from poorer families, and of course there are differences in the way it is used.

With regard to the most dangerous end of the spectrum, we have The Telegraph to thank for a very compelling campaign in which it showed how, at its worst, social media and addictive technology are used to hook children on gambling, particularly casino-style gambling, and to engage children in suicide games, such as the Blue Whale challenge, which has been linked to 100 teenage deaths in Russia. It is no surprise that earlier this year 50 psychologists in America wrote an open letter accusing many of their colleagues of unethical behaviour in advising technology companies on the misuse of addictive tech. If we compare that problem, which is becoming increasingly well defined, with the sort of social contract that we expect from social media firms, we start to see a gulf emerge.

I looked at figures for the taxes paid by social media firms, prepared for me by the Library. It is remarkable how most of the big tech firms in this country are paying very low rates of tax—1.5%, 5%, 6% or 10% at best. That is a long way below even our low levels of corporation tax. We are beginning to see with some clarity the externalities—as economists would call them—or pollution that is created by social media firms, and the taxpayer is expected to clear it up. Unless we begin to change the tax regime and the regulatory regime, this problem will become more pronounced.

The Government need to step up to their responsibilities. The Minister’s former boss, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and others have made a splash in the newspapers, wringing their hands in big interviews, but their concern has not translated into Government action. The Foreign Secretary recently told the newspapers that he thinks there should be safeguards, and that the failure of technology companies to provide these safeguards is “morally wrong” and “unfair on parents”. The chief medical officer has a review in hand and we are waiting with bated breath for the White Paper on internet safety, but I call on the Government to step up.

I have three pleas for the Minister. First, she should look closely at the recommendations that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West and by those on the Labour Front Bench who have called for a duty of care to be placed on social media companies. If I bought a chunk of land, built a stadium and put loads of people in it, I would quite rightly be held to some pretty rigorous health and safety legislation. If I build a virtual forum, where I put loads of people, there are no obligations on me whatsoever. We need to ensure that there is a duty of care, which is rooted in some tried and tested legislation that goes back to the early 1970s. We need to ensure that the social media firms are understanding and analysing the dangers that their work can pose to their customers. We need them proactively to put in place measures to ameliorate that risk. That needs to be auditable and punishable with significant fines if these firms fall short of their obligations.

I am not at all unsympathetic to what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. There is a concern here that social media may be associated with poor mental health if it is overused, but there is a second issue to do with potentially addictive behaviour in gaming and social media use. It is very difficult to put in place mechanisms to fine the international companies responsible, or to make them adhere to good behaviour in recognising the risks.

That is an important point. The duty of care framework, which has been tried and tested in case law since the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, is a useful, very British and pragmatic solution to these kinds of problems, because it puts the locus on the company to identify the harm it may cause and then take reasonable steps to prevent it.

I think that it is possible for an individual nation state to take action against these companies. That is what we see with the “NetzDG” law in Germany. One in six Facebook moderators work in Germany, which should not surprise any of us. There is a €50m fine if companies in Germany do not take down hate speech within 24 hours and wipe out all illegal content within seven days. I think it is possible for individual countries to introduce domestic regulations that can have a material effect, both on the safety of our fellow citizens and on the behaviour of some of these big companies. If the Government do not do it, we parliamentarians will have to try to build an international coalition for responsible tech. I hope that my hon. Friend’s all-party parliamentary group can make strides towards not only a cross-party consensus in this Parliament, but brokering an international consensus.

The right hon. Gentleman brings to the debate huge knowledge of the matter. Does he agree that one of the issues with content and responsibility online is pornography? The rise of online pornography has had a huge impact on behaviour, particularly that of young men. I commend to him the book “Misogynation: The True Scale of Sexism” by Laura Bates. I went to the Edinburgh international book festival, where she spoke about the rise of incidents in playgrounds, which schools do not necessarily have the tools to deal with, as well as young men becoming addicted to online porn, which is having an effect on their behaviour towards women. Does he agree that that is a serious issue, which we must work together, across parties, the UK and beyond, to tackle?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I have bored the Minister endlessly with this point, but during the 19th century there was not one Factory Act, but 17. As business, technology and marketplaces change, we have to update the legislation.

The Minister knows that if we are to maximise the degree of predictability and certainty for the business world and others, there is a good case for setting out a bill of digital rights for the 21st century. That would include all sorts of useful things, for example enshrining the right to privacy—enshrined in article 8 of the European charter of fundamental rights—and action on algorithmic justice. It could also include some of the initiatives, devices, techniques and legislative approaches, such as the duty of care legislation. I hope that is something that my hon. Friend’s all-party parliamentary group will be able to discuss. If we want a set of principles that can with- stand the test of time, and underpin the reform and re-reform of this sector over the course of the 21st century, we will have to work hard to build that cross-party consensus not only in this country, but around the world.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.

What a bad start! I do apologise to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont). Of course, I meant to thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West. I share his amazement that it has only been 10 years since the advent of the Apple iPhone. He made an excellent speech, and I identified, as I am sure other hon. Members did, with the examples he gave of the intensity of the relationship that so many of us have with our devices, and how that is—in his view and mine—tipping over to the point where we question whether it is healthy.

The shadow Minister mentioned the Centre for Humane Technology, an excellent organisation, which was founded by scientists and researchers employed by the large social media platforms. One of them, an ethicist working for one of the major platforms, was tasked with trying to bring a more ethical framework to the development of apps and activity on that particular platform. He bowed out with the rather depressing realisation that change was not possible from within and that he would have more effect from outside, so he founded this organisation.

That is a powerful reminder that there is a difficulty in the perceived conflict in companies’ need for more and more of our attention. It really is a competition for attention and, for the companies that get it, the question then is how to keep it. That is the driving force behind the algorithms that are constantly developing and furthering the reach of these platforms into our lives. It is very important that we monitor usage and that we expect more from technology companies in terms of putting right some of the things that are alleged to have gone wrong, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk made the point that although the debate is about addiction, we are also talking more broadly about excessive screen time. There is a scale, running from what might be called a healthy amount of screen time, which might tip over into dependency, over-involvement and straightforward addiction.

Is the Minister aware that some health research has shown that we hold our breath when we are checking our emails and our phones, which denies the brain oxygen?

I always learn something new when I am answering debates. I did not know that. I am not sure that I look forward to finding out more about it, but I certainly will.

We are undoubtedly living in an age where mobile devices mean that people feel compelled to be connected at any time. The hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) clearly made that point when she talked about her desire for some off-screen time in her personal time in the countryside, which proved difficult. We have dwelt on the darker side of those devices and platforms during the debate, because we are talking about addiction, but it is incumbent on us to recognise that a great deal of positivity has come forth from those devices.

We are looking at the impact on children and young people, to whom we have a particular responsibility. Youth policy is one of my Department’s responsibilities, so that is close to our hearts. The chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, is reviewing the impact that internet use can have on children’s mental health. There are no results from that yet, because it was requested only about a month ago by the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who, I am delighted to inform hon. Members, shares the concerns that we have heard and is in a position to do more about them in the Department of Health and Social Care.

As the Minister knows, the national health service is under tremendous strain. What arguments is she making to Her Majesty’s Treasury to do something about the low rates of tax paid by those companies, so that there is money to do something about the problem?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, tax is a matter for the Treasury. The Chancellor indicated that he was looking at a digital services tax in his speech a few weeks ago. His first priority is to gain international agreement for the fairer taxation of technology companies, particularly these platforms. Actually, I should retract that; I do not think that he said particularly these platforms, but he did say that he wanted an international agreement for the fairer taxation of technology companies as his first priority. If he does not get that, I am told that he will introduce a tax unilaterally in the United Kingdom.

The health review will cover important and diverse issues, including cyber-bullying, online gaming, sleep problems and problematic internet use. I gather that the chief medical officer’s report will be published next year, and I will try to get a handle on when within that 12-month period we can expect it.

The Department of Health and Social Care has also reviewed evidence on the impact that social media can have on children, which showed that those who spend more than three hours using social media on school days are twice as likely to report high or very high scores for mental ill-health. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) said that he had seen research showing a socio-economic difference in the amount of screen time, which, along with the research I have mentioned about some sort of causal link in the time spent, shows that digital technology is in danger of widening the social gaps in society, although it has the potential to bring people together. We obviously need to work to ensure that the latter prevails. The Government have made children and young people’s mental health a top priority for the NHS, and a major programme to improve access to specialist services is supported by £1.4 billion of new funding.

We are also looking at the use of smartphones in schools, which I know inspires strong passions. I have seen some initial results from that analysis, and most schools have rules in place that require that smartphones are not visible during school hours. We need to see more research on whether that is universally applied.

The Government believe that schools are best placed to make decisions about how best to use technology. Headteachers are empowered to manage mobile phone usage. Many schools and parents would appreciate more guidance, however, which we are working on across Government, inspired by the commission of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to the chief medical officer to advise on the mental health impact of social media and smartphone usage.

On internet safety in the wider sense, the overuse of technology and concerns about online harms are not limited to young people. Our forthcoming joint Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Home Office White Paper will be published in the winter. It will set out a range of legislative and non-legislative measures and will detail how we propose to tackle online harms. It will set clear responsibilities for tech companies to keep citizens safer.

The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill asked whether we would look to place a duty of care on social media platforms. That route is certainly worthy of consideration. It is a proven method in other areas, and we will look at its relevance to the online world. Working with the Department of Health and Social Care and across Government, we will develop proposals targeted at improving the ability of users. We are also reforming the UK council for child internet safety so that it no longer focuses exclusively on children. Children will continue to be a top priority, but its remit will be widened.

In response to the hon. Member for Livingston, video games are indeed enjoyed by a large number of people across the UK. For the majority of people, that is a recreational activity, but research shows that, for a minority, their gaming can become excessive, to the extent that they prioritise it over other activities and experience negative effects from it. In recognition of that, as the hon. Lady mentioned, the World Health Organisation has recognised the potential to diagnose gaming disorder in some circumstances. It has not reached a conclusion yet, but I gather that it is working on it. Through its internet safety strategy, my Department is working to improve online safety in games, including by promoting healthy and responsible gaming. To do that, we will work closely with the gaming industry and organisations such as the Video Standards Council. Gaming will also be an important part of our internet safety White Paper.

On isolation and loneliness, I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Sport and Civil Society, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). She has taken responsibility for tackling loneliness, which affects between 5% and 18% of the UK population, and social media is often highlighted as a cause. The strategy includes how Government can set a framework to enable local authorities, the third sector and businesses to support people’s social health.

Research suggests that the reality of social media and its connection to people’s relationships is nuanced and that how negative or positive the impact is depends on which social media service is being used and whether it is substituting for or complementing real-life interactions. For example, there are applications that help new mothers to stay more connected through difficult early stages of parenthood and products that use artificial intelligence to provide real-life experiences for those unable to leave their homes. If used correctly, the technology has real potential to break down barriers and improve the situation that isolated people might be exposed to. That is why social media companies are a core part of initiatives to tackle isolation. Digital means of bringing people together can be especially important to people with mobility problems and families separated by distance.

Technology can be and largely is a powerful force for good. It serves humanity, spreads ideas, and enhances freedom and opportunity across the world. However, what we have heard today gives us great pause for thought. It is informing our deliberations on online safety and I look forward to the continued debate with colleagues here in this Chamber and beyond as we develop our White Paper. We look forward to hearing their further thoughts on the various actions that we might take.

I see that the Division bells have just rung, and I know that proceedings are running late, so I do not intend to use my full time this afternoon.

We have had an excellent debate and I have learned a lot of new things, particularly from the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) about my breathing and using technology, which I look forward to looking into further, and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), who has given me much to think about in my new APPG. I thank the Minister for coming here today. There is a lot of agreement on this issue and I look forward to working with her and other Members on it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered addictive technology.

Sitting adjourned.