Matt Hancock: Social media an ‘urgent’ danger to children’s mental health

child using a smartphone possibly in an abusive situation

The health secretary has announced England's chief medical officer (CMO) will review the effect of social media on children's mental health, and produce a set of guidelines for parents.

Professor Dame Sally Davies' probe into the effects of social media will also cover cyberbullying, online gaming with elements of social media, sleep disorders and internet addiction, with interim findings to be published in December.

The announcement comes in light of mounting evidence that excessive exposure to social media outlets, like Facebook and Snapchat, are a factor in rising rates of mental health conditions in young people.

"Overwhelmingly technology is a force for good, but we are seeing more and more evidence that children using social media sites for hours on end each day is having a detrimental impact on their mental health," health secretary Matt Hancock MP said.

"I want to empower parents to keep their children safe in the digital age which is why I've asked the Chief Medical Officer to draw up helpful guidance to allow them to make an informed choice."

His comments echo those of the previous health secretary Jeremy Hunt who claimed social media posed as big a danger to children's health as obesity earlier this year.

Several pieces of research published recently have underlined the scale of social media addiction in wider society, with the7stars revealing in August that 71% of 18 to 24-year-olds feel they need a break from technology.

Moreover, according to the government, evidence shows children who spend more than three hours using social media sites per day are twice as likely to report high or very high scores for mental ill-health.

"Mental health is just as important as physical health and should be treated as such," said CMO Professor Dame Sally Davies.

"I recognise there is concern amongst parents about the impact of social media on their children's mental health so I am conducting a thorough evidence review and will draw up advice to help empower parents and provide clarity."

Hancock's Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) will work with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to launch an online awareness campaign in 2019 about existing tools parents can use to limit their children's screen time.

The government has also been devising a set of new policies, jointly-led by DCMS and the Home Office, to regulate social media firms and the wider tech industry.

Hancock, in his previous role as secretary of state for DCMS, first touted a set of tougher regulations after being snubbed by 10 of 14 tech companies invited for discussions on how to best tackle the crisis.

Also signalling a tougher approach, Home secretary Sajid Javid MP recently urged the tech industry to engage with the government in efforts to crack down on abusive and harmful content - or face the law.

The severity of any new regulations introduced, he claimed, will depend entirely on tech companies' willingness to meet government demands on new measures.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.