MPs call for social media tax to fund mental health research

Fresh regulations, including a statutory code of conduct, are proposed to tame the “lawless landscape”

Child browsing internet on smartphone

A cross-party group of MPs has demanded the government introduces a tax on social media platforms that will then fund an organisation to research links between online activity and deteriorating children's mental health.

Social media firms must also abide by a statutory code of conduct, the MPs proposed, which would serve as a duty of care for under-24-year-olds. The code of conduct, which would be enforced by UK communications regulator Ofcom, would apply to all social media sites, regardless of the platform's size or however long they have existed.

These recommendations were set out in the first report produced by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) and co-written with the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), with it focussed around social media and its impact on young people's mental health and wellbeing.

In it, the group of MPs have called for the formation of a Social Media Alliance to fund further research and draw up clear guidelines as well as educational tools for the general public. This new organisation would be funded by a 0.5% levy on the profits of social media companies.

The report also highlighted the government should also commission urgent research into whether there is any correlation or causation between the sharp rise in social media usage and the decline in mental health among young people.

The 'addictive' nature of social media, meanwhile, should also be examined extensively so authorities can decide whether or not this phenomenon is concrete enough to gain officially disease classification.

"I truly think our report is the wakeup call needed to ensure - finally - that meaningful action is taken to lessen the negative impact social media is having on young people's mental health," said chair of the APPG Chris Elmore MP.

"For far too long social media companies have been allowed to operate in an online Wild West. And it is in this lawless landscape that our children currently work and play online. This cannot continue. As the report makes clear, now is the time for the government to take action."

The APPG's recommendations have come just days before the government is set to announce its own policies on governing tech companies in the form of an online harms white paper. These will be the first regulations of this kind in the UK.

The MPs ran their inquiry from 29 July last year to 9 January 2019 and sought written evidence from experts, academics, as well as children and parents, along with industry representatives during the process to inform its report.

The demands have been added to a growing list of policy suggestions from a chorus of groups, each issuing their own recommendations as to how the state should regulate the tech industry.

The House of Lords' Communications Committee, for example, recommended that tech firms should be overseen by a newly-established Digital Authority. This organisation would supervise existing regulators, and make recommendations for further rules.

The APPG's recommendations differ slightly; in that, it recommends that Ofcom takes up the mantle for enforcing the statutory duty of care. This would comprise an ethical framework by which social media firms would be judged against, and would replace the existing regime of 'self-regulation'.

The MPs argued the government's forthcoming white paper should clearly define key harms and a code of conduct that companies can follow to ensure they protect their users. These include self-harm, disordered eating, low self-esteem, a lack of sleep, and an over-dependence on social media.

The government has said its online harms white paper will be released before the end of Winter 2019.

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