Social media firms ‘should hand over data amid suicide risk’

Boy on phone

The Royal College of Psychiatrists wants social media data in order to reduce rates of suicide and self-harm among young people. Photograph: Alamy

Social media firms such as Facebook and Instagram should be forced to hand over data about who their users are and why they use the sites to reduce suicide among children and young people, psychiatrists have said.

The call from the Royal College of Psychiatrists comes as ministers finalise plans to crack down on issues caused by people viewing unsavoury material and messages online.

The college, which represents the UK’s 18,000 psychiatrists, wants the government to make social media platforms hand over the data to academics so that they can study what sort of content users are viewing.

“We will never understand the risks and benefits of social media use unless the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram share their data with researchers,” said Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the college’s child and adolescent mental health faculty. “Their research will help shine a light on how young people are interacting with social media, not just how much time they spend online.”

Data passed to academics would show the type of material viewed and how long users were spending on such platforms but would be anonymous, the college said.

The government plans to set up a new online safety regulator and the college says it should be given the power to compel firms to hand over data. It is also calling for the forthcoming 2% “turnover tax” on social media companies’ income to be extended so that it includes their turnover internationally, not from just the UK.

“Self-regulation is not working. It is time for government to step up and take decisive action to hold social media companies to account for escalating harmful content to vulnerable children and young people,” said Dubicka.

The college’s demands come amid growing concern that young people are being harmed by material that, for example, encourages self-harm, suicide and eating disorders. They are included in a new position statement on technology use and the mental health of children and young people.

NHS England challenged firms to hand over the sort of information that the college is suggesting. Claire Murdoch, its national director for mental health, said that action was needed “to rein in potentially misleading or harmful online content and behaviours”.

She said: “If these tech giants really want to be a force for good, put a premium on users’ wellbeing and take their responsibilities seriously, then they should do all they can to help researchers better understand how they operate and the risks posed. Until then, they cannot confidently say whether the good outweighs the bad.”

The demands have also been backed by Ian Russell, who has become a campaigner against social media harm since his 14-year-old daughter Molly killed herself in November 2017.

In an emotional foreword to the position paper, he writes that, when going through her social media accounts after she died, “among the usual schoolfriends, pop groups and celebrities followed by 14-year-olds, we found bleak, depressive material, graphic self-harm content and suicide-encouraging memes … “I have no doubt that social media helped kill my daughter.”

Molly Russell
 Molly Russell took her own life after viewing ‘bleak, depressive material, graphic self-harm content and suicide-encouraging memes’, according to her father. Photograph: Family handout/PA

The paper acknowledges that the internet and social media can benefit young users, including with information to boost their mental or physical health, online support from specialist services and the chance to develop friendships.

But it also highlights the growing evidence of social media’s association with the dramatic increase in the last decade in self-harm among young people, especially teenage girls. However, it also said that a lack of research meant it could not be sure whether there was a causal link between the two.

Tom Madders, director of campaigns at the charity YoungMinds, said: “It’s crucial that tech companies take action to minimise the risks. This means taking responsibility for what’s posted on their platforms, and ensuring that young people who are struggling to cope can access support.

“While harmful content on social media can have a devastating impact, we also need action to address the many other pressures young people face, including an education system with too great a focus on high-stakes exams and cuts to youth services.”

Daniel Dyball, the UK executive director of the Internet Association, did not respond directly to the college’s proposals. In a statement, he said that: “Internet companies are committed to keeping people safe online.

“Existing research on digital safety often shows conflicting results, making it difficult to fully understand the impact of these technologies on users. It’s critical that we expand our understanding and research base to promote positive and healthy experiences online.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are developing world-leading plans to make the UK a safer place to be online. This includes a duty of care on online companies, overseen by an independent regulator with tough enforcement powers, to hold them to account.

“The regulator will have the power to require transparency reports from companies outlining what they are doing to protect people online. These reports will be published so parents and children can make informed decisions about their internet use.”