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House of Commons Hansard
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Social Media and Screen Use: Young People’s Health
07 February 2019
Volume 654

Science and Technology Committee

Select Committee statement

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We now come to the first of today’s Select Committee statements. Mr Norman Lamb will speak—

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rose—

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I am sorry; I have to give a little explanation, as these matters are still fairly new to the House, so we will make sure that we get the procedure correct. Mr Norman Lamb will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement, and call Mr Lamb to respond to these in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions, and should be brief. Front Benchers may, if they so wish, take part in this questioning.

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I rise to make a statement on our report on the impact of social media and screen use on young people’s health. Before I cover our key findings, I want to pay tribute to Ian Russell, the father of Molly Russell, who tragically took her own life. The decision of Ian Russell to speak out and raise concerns about what Molly saw online, through Instagram, has had a profound impact in raising public consciousness of the potential risks, but also in galvanising the debate and the call for action to ensure that children are protected from harm.

I thank the 174 organisations and individuals who provided us with written evidence, and the 37 individuals who gave oral evidence. I am particularly grateful to all the young people who took part in our survey and told us of their experiences of using social media. We received over 3,000 responses from schools across the UK, which was amazing. This is an evidence-based report, and it would not have been possible without the input of all those people. I thank the parliamentary outreach and education services for facilitating the responses from schools. I would also like to thank the brilliant team who support the Science and Technology Committee in the work we do.

Throughout our inquiry, we heard repeatedly that children no longer make a distinction between the online and offline worlds. The boundaries between the two have become blurred. In 2015, almost a quarter of 15-year-olds in the UK spent six hours a day or more online outside school, and much of that time was spent on social media. At its best, social media can be a positive, transformative force in a young person’s life. It is a way of keeping in touch with friends and of connecting instantaneously with people across the world from different backgrounds. Crucially, it has given many young people an opportunity for their voice to be heard on the issues that they care most about.

At its worst, however, social media has been linked to cyber-bullying, grooming, sexting and the promotion of harmful information and behaviours. Those risks are not new and they are not caused by social media. We are clear throughout our report that social media can act both to amplify and to facilitate those risks. For example, we heard how bullying no longer stops at the school gate. Instead, it finds its way into children’s homes via social media, sometimes taking place in front of a large online audience.

Frustratingly, we do not have a good enough understanding of the scale of the problem—be it cyber-bullying via social media or grooming—nor do we have robust academic evidence of the relationship between the use of social media by young people and its effect on their health. That is not an acceptable situation. It cannot be right that we do not yet have a good grasp of who is at risk of experiencing harm from using social media and why, or of the longer-term consequences of that exposure on children.

Social media is, of course, still a young research field, but the more pressing problem is that researchers lack access to key data on social media and its use. That valuable data is held by social media companies. It has the potential to provide the types of insights that are so clearly needed, yet social media companies have not readily shared it with bona fide researchers. It is deeply disappointing that we continue to grapple around in the dark on this issue when the answers could be forthcoming.

In our report, we call on social media companies to make anonymised high-level data available for research purposes to bona fide researchers, while also respecting data protection principles. We also stress that the Government should consider what legislation needs to be in place to make that happen. Incidentally, I very much welcome the chief medical officer’s report today and her call for access to data for research, which matches the Committee’s call. I also very much welcome her guidance to parents and others.

The lack of good-quality academic evidence does not give us a licence simply to sit back and do nothing. We heard repeatedly from parents, carers, teachers and children themselves that they were worried about the detrimental effects of social media. Arguably, we have waited far too long for social media companies to step up to the plate and address the risks that their platforms facilitate. Successive voluntary codes of practice and guidance have not delivered effective protection for children online.

Legislative progress, too, has been patchy and achingly slow. Most online content is still subject to little or no specific regulation, creating, in effect, a “standards lottery”, as the regulator, Ofcom, has described it. Change is long overdue. Sometimes the opportunity to enact vital changes feels infuriatingly out of reach. I hope that will not be the case on this occasion. The Government’s forthcoming online harms White Paper, with the prospect of legislation to follow, presents a crucial opportunity to put a world-leading regulatory framework in place. This chance must not be squandered.

First and foremost, a principles-based regulatory regime for social media companies should be introduced in the forthcoming parliamentary Session. The regime should apply to any site with registered UK users. At the core of this new regime must be the principle that social media companies have a duty of care towards their users who are under 18. In essence, that means that children must be protected from harm when accessing and using social media sites. It should be achieved through social media companies acting with reasonable care to avoid identified harms. If enacted, it would be a powerful, game-changing step, and it is one that my Committee urges the Government to take.

Social media companies must also be far more open and transparent in how they operate and particularly how they moderate, review and prioritise content. To achieve that, the Government should introduce a statutory code of practice for social media companies to provide consistency on content reporting practices. This will require primary legislation. We were particularly encouraged by the German example of the Government setting a clear 24-hour timeframe in which social media companies must respond to reports of potentially illegal content. A similar approach should be put in place in the UK.

To uphold the new regime, a regulator should be appointed by the end of October 2019. We believe that Ofcom, working alongside the Information Commissioner’s Office, is well placed to perform this role. Ofcom should not only monitor compliance with the proposed code of practice, but have the necessary teeth to take enforcement action when warranted. Enforcement actions must be backed by a strong and effective sanctions regime. Consideration should be given to whether directors ought to be held personally liable.

Finally, the digital literacy and resilience of children, as well as of their teachers and parents, must be improved. Young people in particular must be equipped with the skills that they need to navigate and assess what they are seeing on social media and beyond. To achieve this, personal, social, health and economic education must soon be made mandatory by the Government for both primary and secondary school pupils. It should deliver an age-appropriate understanding of the harms and benefits of the digital world.

I want to finish on an optimistic note. I am encouraged by the sheer amount of interest in and the work that is currently being undertaken on this matter, which is occurring both inside and outside Government. What we need now is action—effective action in the form of new primary legislation that brings forward a robust regulatory regime, underpinned by strong sanctions. What we do not need is more toothless voluntary codes that can be ignored by social media companies.

Success depends on sustained leadership and commitment from the Government, even when it is difficult. At the core of this, there needs to be a legal duty of care, with the clear understanding that there are consequences for their actions if social media companies fail to protect children. Without leadership and perseverance, the worst that social media has to offer will continue to blight the lives of children. This must not be tolerated.

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I thank the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee for coming to the House and making a statement, and other members of the Committee for their work. I welcome this report. It is a fantastic piece of work, and I look forward to researching the issue in more detail. Did the right hon. Gentleman consider the concerning and tragic case of the teenager, Molly Russell, who allegedly took her own life after viewing images on Instagram? Did the Committee consider the concerning issue of social media companies that will not release the data concerning a young person who has died, possibly as a result of images that have been seen in that way, and did it form a view on what should be done?

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Molly Russell’s father, Ian Russell, spoke out after we completed our report, and what he said about the experience of his daughter is central to our recommendations. There must be much greater transparency, as well as mechanisms to ensure that the very harmful materials that Molly saw on Instagram do not come in front of children online. Children must be protected from such harm, and the hon. Lady is right to highlight that issue.

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It is a great pleasure to serve on the Committee chaired by the right hon. Gentleman, especially with regard to this report. I wholly agree with its conclusions, but draw particular importance to the point about data access, which is vital for future knowledge, as well as the duty of care. Does he agree that our conclusions about parental engagement are of equal importance? Parents have a key role to play in empowering their children and giving them resilience online, but they themselves need huge support to educate their children. The onus is therefore on Governments across the United Kingdom to ensure that parents have the right remedies, right knowledge, and right access to information to be able to educate their children and protect them online.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, which I entirely share as I enjoy working on the Committee with him. He is right to highlight the need for guidance and advice from the parents’ perspective, which is why I welcome the chief medical officer’s report today. One thing she highlights, which is potentially uncomfortable for us all, is the fact that children report being concerned about parents who use social media in front of their children, rather than engaging with them. In a way that makes the point that we all have a responsibility. The Government have to act, because the time for legislation is long overdue, but as we grapple to cope with the social revolution that has happened over the past five years, we as a society all have a responsibility.

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I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on this incredibly important report, which complements some of the work done by the Education Committee. Does he support the request made to the Chairman of Ways and Means to make arrangements to question Ministers in Westminster Hall, in order to test how joined up the Government are in tackling the serious problems that he and other hon. Members have raised?

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I think that is a brilliant idea. I completely support the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion and would be happy to work with him to ensure that it happens. The opportunity for us across Committees to challenge and question Ministers and ensure effective action is a valuable one.

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I, too, commend the Committee and its Chair for this excellent report. I have not yet had the chance to read it, but I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions. First, is he aware of the excellent work being done by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) and the all-party group on social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, which he chairs? It recently made an inquiry into social media and young people’s mental health, which will be published in March, and I urge the right hon. Gentleman to take note of that.

The second point is about the potential for social media to be a force for good in relation to young people’s health. I chair the all-party group on children, teenagers, and young adults with cancer, and we are keen for good health messages to go out on social media because, as the right hon. Gentleman says, young people today see no difference between the online and offline worlds, and social media is potentially a powerful force for good. Would he consider holding a further inquiry, if necessary, to explore that issue?

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I would be happy to work with the all-party group to ensure that our collective learning on this issue feeds into decision making by the Government, so that we get the legislation right and as quickly as possible. The hon. Lady makes the important point that social media is often a force for good. It is important to have a balanced view of this issue, and although we must recognise the powerful potential good impact that social media can have, we must also recognise its risks and harms and take action to protect children from those harms, while not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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I wish to follow on from the point raised by the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) about the potential force for good of social media, and I thank the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and his Committee for this report. I also wish to reflect on comments made yesterday by the Suicide Prevention Minister, who referred to the opportunity to use algorithms to promote things positively. As a parent of four daughters aged between 15 and 20, and as a mother who works away, I can say that social media has provided a very positive influence in my daughters’ lives. One particular YouTuber, Zoe Sugg, was almost a virtual big sister in our household, and I echo those comments and encourage more positive stories around social media and the opportunity for positive algorithms to support its use in the future.

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The hon. Lady makes a valuable point, and I am conscious that teenagers and young people can get online access to advice, guidance and support to help them through difficult periods of their life, and encourage them to seek help from others. We must recognise that and ensure that our approach to this issue is balanced, both recognising the potential harms and understanding the positive aspects of social media.

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I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his Committee on the production of this excellent report. Does he agree that as new technology develops, and particularly as we hand more control over to algorithms, there is an urgent need to ensure that ethical considerations are fully thought through at the design stage? In addition to the specific regulation that he envisages, we also need a more general code of data ethics—a sort of Hippocratic oath, perhaps, for developers and data scientists—to ensure that those principles are thought through as technology is developed. Would he support my campaign for such a code to be named after Ada Lovelace?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution, and I would support her campaign. I also agree about the importance of designing ethics into the way that algorithms operate. Indeed, this week our Committee took evidence from the head of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, and there is an important discussion to be had. Although there are rapid developments on the ground with the Government using algorithms in all sorts of different ways, we do not fully understand how to ensure an ethical framework that protects people from bias and can be built into the data used by algorithms. If such bias become embedded into the algorithms there are very dangerous potential outcomes, and my hon. Friend is correct to say that we need to get this right.

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May I join the right hon. Gentleman in congratulating our Committee Clerks on helping us with this extensive and high-quality report? Does he agree that in traditional regulated sectors, the idea that a regulator should be able to see data to assess harm on behalf of consumers and take action in an appropriate way is perfectly normal? Not just our report but that by the chief medical officer, reports that we are expecting from the Government, and announcements made yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) and by others, indicate that this is merely an incremental change as we adjust to the new online world. This is something that should be welcomed, and positively and proactively taken forward by the Government without many hurdles.

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I echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the amazing support that we get from an impressive and able team, and I very much agree that data must be available to regulators and researchers so that we gain a much greater understanding of where the risks are and which children are most at risk of harm. By improving our understanding in that way, we are much more likely to protect children from harm.

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This is the second time this week that I find myself in the same room as the right hon. Gentleman, agreeing on many issues and focusing on our children’s mental health. That feels very appropriate in Children’s Mental Health Week. As we have heard today, social media is one of many factors that may contribute, in both a positive and negative way, to our children’s mental health. We recognise that social media and technology can bring huge benefits for our young people, but we need to recognise and manage potential harms.

I welcome the Science and Technology Committee’s report and the opportunity to better understand the relationship between young people’s mental health, excessive screen time and the use of social media. We will consider the Committee’s findings ahead of the publication of the online harms White Paper. The report calls for media companies to have a duty of care. We are seriously considering all regulatory options as part of the White Paper. In the meantime, the Government are very clear that we need to hold companies to account. They have a responsibility to their users. We will be setting out plans for both legislative and non-legislative measures in our online harms White Paper.

We continue to work with our colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care on all possible policy options to take forward on young people’s mental health in relation to all areas of health and social media. All relevant Ministers across Government will see and react to this very good report.

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I thank the Minister very much. Just to be clear, the other occasion when the Minister and I were in a room together was when we talked about the national lottery’s work on children’s mental health. It is making a very significant investment, in six places around the country, in looking at how we can give children the best possible start to life. That is worth applauding.

I welcome the Minister’s response. All I would say is that I encourage her to get on with it. We have been waiting for quite a long time now, and we need the White Paper to be published as soon as possible. Harms continue to happen while we wait for the legislation to be introduced.