NEWS17 January 2020

Psychiatrists call for social networks to hand over data for online harms research

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UK – Social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram should be forced to share data with universities for the purposes of research on the harms of social media use on children and young people, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

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There is growing evidence of an association between social media use and poor mental health, but a lack of research means it is difficult to identify causal links, the college said in a report.

Further research is needed on the interaction of duration, content and correlation, the report said, arguing that it is essential for large-scale cohort studies examining other variables to embed device-collected screen time and internet usage-type data. It also called for more qualitative studies examining children’s and young people’s own perspectives, including gender differences.

The government announced last year it would set up a new regulator to address online safety, and the college has called for this regulator to establish a protocol to compel social networks to hand over their data, including information on the nature of content viewed and the amount of time users spend on platforms.

Other recommendations from the Royal College of Psychiatrists include an ‘urgent review’ of the ethical framework for using digital data and funding for a follow up to the NHS digital prevalence study to examine the impact of social media on vulnerable children and young people.

The college also said the government’s proposal to introduce a 2% tax on the UK revenues of major tech companies should go further and should apply to worldwide turnover, to fund independent research.

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists and co-author of the report, said: “We will never understand the risks and benefits of social media use unless the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram share their data with researchers. Their research will help shine a light on how young people are interacting with social media, not just how much time they spend online.

“Self-regulation is not working. It is time for government to step-up and take decisive action to hold social media companies to account for escalating harmful content to vulnerable children and young people.”