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Children's Mental Health Week: UK government considers new rules on social media companies

Posted: 9:53 AM, Feb 06, 2019
Updated: 2019-02-06 10:53:49-05

UNITED KINGDOM — Concern over children's use of social media and its effect on their mental health has increased markedly in recent years, and now official action on the issue is also stepping up.

In the UK, government ministers are considering imposing new rules on social media companies, while a trial introducing mindfulness exercises will be extended to up to 370 English schools.

The response comes as separate surveys have revealed feelings of "overwhelming pressure" and inadequacy among young social media users, as well as the prevalence of online bullying.

The government proposals have been launched as part of Children's Mental Health Week, February 4-10.

"We have heard calls for an Internet Regulator and to place a statutory 'duty of care' on platforms, and are seriously considering all options," a spokesman for Britain's Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said in a statement.

"Social media companies clearly need to do more to ensure they are not promoting harmful content to vulnerable people," the spokesman said, adding that a forthcoming document will "set out their responsibilities, how they should be met and what should happen if they are not."

Scrutiny of social media companies has become more intense after Molly Russell, a 14-year-old British girl, died by suicide in November 2017.

After her death it was found that she had viewed social media content on depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide, according to the UK's Press Association (PA) news agency.

Her father, Ian Russell, blamed social media algorithms for encouraging her to view related content.

And social media may also be exposing kids to other stresses.

'Overwhelming pressure' to succeed

According to research published January 29 by UK media regulator Ofcom, 11% of 12- to 15-year-olds said they had been bullied on social media. The survey also found that 31% of that age group has seen something "worrying or nasty" online.

Cyberbullying is also a worry for parents, with 40% of parents of online 5- to 15-year-olds very or fairly concerned, according to the survey.

Another piece of research from the Prince's Trust, a leading UK charity for young people, shows that 57% of surveyed 16- to 25-year-olds say they feel social media results in an "overwhelming pressure" to succeed, and 46% say they feel "inadequate" when comparing themselves to peers on social media.

The overall index score from the Prince's Trust survey has remained the same since last year, at its lowest level in a decade, and almost half of respondents get anxious feelings about their future after comparing their lives to friends on social media.

"It appears that in the last 12 months nothing has happened to improve the way young people are feeling about their lives," said Nick Stace, UK chief executive of the Prince's Trust, in a statement.

"Social media has become omnipresent in the lives of young people and this research suggests it is exacerbating what is already an uncertain and emotionally turbulent time."

The Prince's Trust eBay Youth Index, released February 5, is an online survey performed by global public opinion and data company YouGov involving a total of 2,162 young people in the UK, carried out from November 13 to December 2, 2018.

Survey participants are asked how happy and confident they are in different areas of their lives. The responses are then converted into a numerical scale between 0 and 100, where 100 denotes being entirely happy or confident, and zero being not at all happy or confident. The latest results have been mapped against the data from the previous nine reports to show change over time.

Mindfulness lessons

Social media is just one factor in wider concerns about children's mental health, which also include "intense pressure at school, bullying or problems at home," said Imran Hussain, Action for Children's director of policy and campaigns.

In response to what Hussain called a children's mental health crisis, education officials also announced that up to 370 schools across England will take part in a study that will trial lessons in mindfulness.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds said the trial will be one of the largest of its kind in the world, including mindfulness exercises, breathing exercises and relaxation techniques as well as sessions with mental health experts.

"As a society, we are much more open about our mental health than ever before, but the modern world has brought new pressures for children, while potentially making others worse," said Hinds in a statement.

"These trials are key to improving our understanding of how practical, simple advice can help young people cope with the pressures they face," he said. The study is set to run until 2021.