MASTERCLASSING

Social media companies must have a 'duty of care' towards children, says UK MPs

Tyrone Stewart

Teen girl mobileA group of MPs have come to the conclusion that social media companies should be subject to a legal duty of care to their users, especially the younger ones.

The House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee surveyed more than 3,000 young people to hear about their experiences on social media. It found that, though there are also positives, social media can be damaging to the health and emotional wellbeing of young people – whether through damaging sleep patterns, making them body conscious, bullying, grooming, or sexting.

In order to assess the true extent of the damage that social media can cause, the committee suggests that social media companies must be willing to provide researchers with more data, within the boundaries of data protection legislation such as GDPR, to help better protect young users. And the group is looking toward the Government to put legislation in place to ensure firms, like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, do just that.

The committee’s report also points to other areas where regulation and legislation is lacking, including video sharing platforms, such as YouTube; platforms centred around social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter; and search engines that direct users toward different information sources across the internet, such as Google and Bing.

As such, the report recommends that a ‘comprehensive’ regulatory framework is put in place to clearly show social media companies the responsibility they have to take care of their users. It also urges civil society, tech companies, law enforcement, the Government, and non-governmental organisations to work together to end child sexual exploitation (CSE) and abuse online – suggesting that the Government should aim to halve reported online CSE within two years and eliminate it in four years.

“Throughout our inquiry we have heard from a range of experts, including young people, about both the benefits of social media, as well as deep concerns about its potential risks to the health, safety and wellbeing of young people. It is frustrating that there is not yet a well-established body of research examining the effects of social media on younger users,” said Norman Lamb, MP for North Norfolk and chair of the Science and Technology Committee.

“More worryingly, social media companies—who have a clear responsibility towards particularly young users—seem to be in no rush to share vital data with academics that could help tackle the very real harms our young people face in the virtual world. 

“We understand their eagerness to protect the privacy of users but sharing data with bona fide researchers is the only way society can truly start to understand the impact, both positive and negative, that social media is having on the modern world,” continued Lamb.

“The Government also has a vital part to play and must act to put an end to the current ‘standards lottery’ approach to regulation. We concluded that self-regulation will no longer suffice. We must see an independent, statutory regulator established as soon as possible, one which has the full support of the Government to take strong and effective actions against companies who do not comply.”