Last month, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook spoke candidly about his unease at what he called the “overuse” of technology, adding that he didn’t want his young nephew to use social media networks.
It felt like a symbolic moment, as one of the titans of the technology world hinted at personal reservations about social media when it came to his own family.
As Health Secretary, I’ve been vocal over the past 12 months about the need for social media companies to step up to the plate and help us tackle the mental health issues that research suggests is associated with to excessive social media use.
And that’s not because I am a Neanderthal but because fundamentally I believe in technology – provided it is harnessed appropriately. The company I founded before going into politics was in technology – we produced a number of websites to help younger people choose the right university or college course. I’ve also been a passionate champion for how technology can improve our health system too, including mental health provision itself.
But I do worry about unintended consequences. I worry for my own children, and I worry that as a nation we are sleepwalking into a situation where a whole generation of young people are spending huge chunks of their childhood online rather than investing in the deep and enduring face-to-face relationships that help them grow up as well-rounded individuals.
When you have people like Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, effectively admitting that the social media industry’s business model is built on psychological addiction, I think it’s right to demand these firms to exercise greater restraint and responsibility in how they design, market and manage their services.
The latest Ofcom research suggest that half of children aged 11 and 12 now have a social media profile, despite many platforms’ minimum age being 13, and the average 12-15 year old spends over 20 hours every week online. These are two areas that could be addressed by technology providers stepping up and accepting responsibility.
In the autumn, I met with the leading technology providers and set them a simple challenge: work with us and help us find solutions to these issues facing young people
That’s why in the autumn, I met with the leading technology providers, including Facebook, Snapchat, Apple and Google, and set them a simple challenge: work with us and help us find solutions to these issues facing young people.
It was a good, productive conversation and they agreed to come back in March with some hard proposals, which I look forward to seeing – but the clock is ticking, just as the public’s attitude towards the ethical conduct of social media firms is hardening.
Without question there is more that Government can do to improve support for children and young – and our Children and Young People’s Green Paper sets out a comprehensive set of measures, including the £5million I’ve announced today to extend mental health training in primary schools.
We particularly need to make sure there is greater availability of counselling services in our schools, better support for parents and faster access to specialist NHS therapies and treatments where necessary. At least 70,000 additional children and young people each year are expected to receive evidence-based treatment by 2020/21.
So here’s the opportunity: if the future of technology is so promising, why don’t Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Google make sure they are the solution, not the problem?
That means tackling underage use with proper age verification; nudging people who are online too long; sharing data so we can tackle cyber-bullying and many other small measures that – taken together – will have a dramatic impact in making children safer online.
We read a lot of hot air on social media every day, but this time it is action not words we need.
Jeremy Hunt is the Secretary of State for Health and Conservative MP for South West Surrey