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Social media addiction should be seen as a disease, MPs say

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A child using a laptop computer

‘It is paramount that we protect young people online,’ the MPs said. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Social media addiction should be considered a disease, MPs have said, in a sign of the pressures facing technology companies and the growing concern over the impact social networks are having on users’ mental health.

The politicians called for further research on the effects of social media but said a report suggested there was good reason to believe sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – which are constantly competing for users to spend more time on their platforms – could be having a corrosive effect on children.

“It is paramount that we protect young people to ensure they are kept safe and healthy when they are online,” said the MPs, who believe the government should urgently fund long-term studies to see whether a clinical definition for social media addiction should be introduced.

The report was compiled by the all-party parliamentary group on social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, made up of MPs who have an interest in the topic. The report was written with the assistance of the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) charity, which endorsed its findings following a series of evidence hearings.

For an individual to be diagnosed as having gaming disorder the WHO suggests an individual should have shown significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, or work lives due to computer games for at least 12 months. The MPs suggest a similar definition could apply to individuals who struggle with excessive social media use, if research found this was justified.

The report also calls on the UK government to issue formal health guidance on how those aged 24 and under can avoid excessive social media use. It also backs calls for social media companies to be forced to share anonymised data with researchers to help understand the impact of their products on young people.

The group, chaired by Labour’s Chris Elmore and the Conservative William Wragg, recognised that social media had brought many benefits to society, including improved access to information on public health. However, the MPs want a 0.5% levy on social media networks’ profits to fund research, educational initiatives and establish clearer guidance for the public.

Concerns about the impact of social media on the mental health of children has increased substantially in recent years, especially after a campaign led by the parents of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017. Her father has claimed Instagram “helped kill” his daughter, prompting the social network to ban graphic self-harm images on its site.

Shirley Cramer, the chief executive of the RSPH, said: “This inquiry clearly highlights the serious and very real concerns of a variety of experts and young people. The overarching finding is the need for social media companies to have in place a duty of care to protect vulnerable users and the need for regulation which would provide much-needed health and safety protection for what is a lawless digital playground.”

She said extra research should be prioritised “to improve our understanding of the health harms, as well as benefits, from social media on our generation of digital natives, and that this research should be supported by industry itself”.

The report also acknowledges a growing awareness of the tactics employed by tech companies to encourage repeated use of their services. The MPs said the government should look at “which design aspects of social media platforms are inherently detrimental to young people’s mental health and wellbeing”.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “The government will soon publish a white paper which will set out the responsibilities of online platforms, how these responsibilities should be met and what would happen if they are not. An internet regulator, statutory ‘duty of care’ on platforms, and a levy on social media companies are all measures we are considering as part of our work.”

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