The 21st Century wouldn’t be the same without social media – it’s connected billions of people around the world, helped topple corrupt governments and has created a global multibillion-dollar industry.
But this great leap forward in connecting people is beginning to have worrying impacts on mental health for some, especially among young people.
Mental health has long been an issue close to my heart, and, in my new role as Universities Minister, it is an area I want to continue to focus on.
A growing body of research has linked use of social media to a range of mental health problems, from depression and anxiety to eating disorders and sleep problems. As the generation that use social media the most, it is those aged 16-24 that are being the hardest hit. A report by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) suggested that social media can be more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes.
This is also an issue that the National Union of Students (NUS) has been campaigning on, hoping to raise awareness of mental health issues on campus for a growing number of students and the impact of social media.
I’ve heard as much first-hand while I’ve been touring universities, schools and youth groups, and it was through these conversations that the role social media can play in mental health issues was really hammered home.
One student I spoke to said the need to stay connected 24/7 through fear of missing out (“FOMO” I was reliably informed) was “almost overwhelming”, while another explained their growing craving for ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ of their posts and the feeling of rejection when they received none. Another described not being able to escape bullies, even when they were at home in their bedroom.
I know that a system designed to bring us all together is actually leaving many young people feeling isolated, alone and alienated. As social media become increasingly universal, this presents a big challenge for society: one we should all take seriously.
There have been calls for more government regulation in this area. And we have responded. We’ve unveiled an Internet Safety Strategy that seeks to create a code of practice for social media companies that aim to deal with cyber bullying and remove hateful and inappropriate content. It also highlights the importance of education as a way to help inform parents and their children about online safety and how this advice can be better integrated into social media sites themselves.
An issue we face, though, is that social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are supranational entities. Laws in one country won’t apply in another, so the emphasis and desire to make social media safer must come from within. I believe that big social media businesses have a moral and ethical obligation to do so.
Sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram must accept that they are not just platforms that people use, but publishers and content-creators, and they should not shirk their responsibility
In his New Year’s message, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, accepted that his site needed to do more to remove harmful or inappropriate content, deal with cyber bullying and the impact using the site has on mental health.
This admission is a good first step, but we need a new approach that all social media sites will adopt – we need something that will go viral, so to speak.
I consider one way forward could be to make dealing with the mental health impact of their service part of social media companies’ license to operate.
I’m not talking here about licensing in a legal sense, but about the permission we as consumers, citizens and society give to a company to continue to go about its business, to sell goods and provide services in a particular way. Like Wi-Fi on the go, you notice it most when it’s gone.
Take, for example, the oil sector, and the huge impact of Deepwater Horizon. This tragedy killed 11, and the resultant oil-slicks fouled the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico. It badly damaged BP’s reputation and ability to operate as it had before in the US. We, rightly, expect more from business, with the demands on them to operate responsibly – wherever they are – increasingly daily.
These expectations apply as much to our newest global companies as to those in our oldest industries. Social media firms have transformed how we interact with one another; they spend serious money on understanding their users, on analysing data and on R&D. But they seem reluctant to take decisive action to limit the insecurity, anxiety and depression their services can foster among some users.
Sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram must accept that they are not just platforms that people use, but publishers and content-creators, and they should not shirk their responsibility - clearing up this mental health fallout should be part of their license to operate, their covenant with their customers.
Social media offers huge benefits: it has democratised and accelerated the sharing of information, connected billions of people, and created tens of thousands of jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago.
But if social media companies want to continue to be a force for good, then they must share the responsibility of dealing with the bad. Consider this a friend request from a clearly willing Government with our shared interest being the mental well-being of young people across the UK and the wider world.
I do hope they accept and we can get down to work.
Sam Gyimah is the universities, science and innovation minister and Conservative MP for East Surrey