John Humphrys - Children and Social Media: a Public Health Problem?

You don’t have to spend long with children before their obsession with social media becomes all too apparent. Out come the smart phones and the iPads and you’ve lost their attention for good: they are now immersed in a virtual world that seems more real to them than the real one. Some people call this not so much an obsession as an addiction which, like any other addiction, has the potential to cause real harm. It constitutes, they say, a public health problem that is growing and that needs to be tackled by the government. To others, however, all this is an unnecessary medicalisation of perfectly ordinary behaviour in kids and that is simply a matter for parents to deal with. Who’s right?

Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, drew attention to the issue in a speech on Wednesday. He was concerned about a growing epidemic of mental health problems in young people which was putting an increasing burden on the NHS. He said one in ten children between the ages of 5 and 16 has a clinically diagnosable mental illness. Some of these illnesses, such as anorexia and conditions that lead to self-harm, have been familiar for a long time, but others are of more recent origin and, he believes, can be traced to the use of social media in the young.

He said that the country needed to ask ‘some pretty searching questions around the role of technology companies, social media and the impact that is having on childhood.’ He added: ‘This cannot be a conversation that is simply left to the NHS to pick up the pieces for an epidemic of mental health challenge for our young people, induced by many other actors across our economy’.

The charity 5Rights has published a report about the effects of social media on children, claiming that tech firms deploy ‘an unfettered use of persuasive design’ intended to hook children into addiction. It cited tactics used to keep kids online such as auto play content, which means videos on social media platforms automatically roll on to the next. The system of likes, shares and comments creates a dependency on the affirmation of others in order to maintain self-esteem, and the process of constant notifications means that children have to choose between being constantly deluged or living in fear that they are missing out, with the consequent effect of feeling they are becoming of no value.

Baroness Kidron, the crossbench peer who is the chairman of 5Rights, says: ‘No product should be routinely sold, delivered or shared with children unless it has had an impact assessment on the likely outcomes … and protections and mitigations put it place that are age appropriate … If you think about gambling and alcohol … we have very strong protections. All the report says is: let’s have limits to [social media’s] availability when the end user is a child, let’s have warnings.’

To some people, however, this may seem like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Parents, they will say, have long been familiar with the way children tend to binge on whatever it is that is currently giving them gratification, whether it’s chocolate, watching too much television, or just staying in bed. It’s the job of parents to monitor and regulate their children’s behaviour even if this means acting tough from time to time and having to put up with the scenes that follow. The use of social media is no different. Talk of a public health crisis is absurd: just take away the smart phones and the iPads until the kids learn to use them in moderation.

But campaigners such as Lady Kidron say it isn’t as simple as that. Social media is now so much a part of all our worlds, including children’s, that we can’t just cut ourselves off from it. Children now have to be engaged with social media because their exclusion from it would cause its own problems. That means that the tech companies, which are making so much money out of children’s use of social media, have a responsibility to make sure what they provide does not call harm. If talking about a public health problem is what’s needed, so be it.

The government seems to ready to follow this line. Sam Gyimah, the minister responsible for science and innovation, said on Thursday that the tech companies had a ‘duty of care’ to their customers. He said: ‘If you had an oil company, we expect you – if there is an oil spill – to deal with it and we expect you to have regard to the possible harm to communities. People call that a licence to practice. And I think social media companies have come of age. … There is no reason why, as we reflect on the responsibilities of social media, we can’t think how we make sure that – whether its extremism, cyber-bullying, economic, for example, ripping off intellectual property scams – that we can’t evolve that system to deal with this.’ That applied too, he said, to young people’s mental health.

What do you think? Is it your experience that children are being harmed by the use of social media or do you believe we are exaggerating its effects? Do you think their use of social media amounts to an addiction that constitutes a public health problem? Should it be the responsibility of parents to stop their children from becoming hooked or do you think it is a task that’s beyond them? What do youi make of the way the tech companies are dealing with all this? And what, if anything, would you like the government to do about it?

Let us know your views. 

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