Social media platforms are being urged to be far more transparent about how their services operate and to make “anonymised high-level data” available to researchers so the technology’s effects on users — and especially on children and teens — can be better understood.
The calls have been made in a report by the UK parliament’s Science and Technology Committee which has been looking into the impacts of social media and screen use among children — to consider whether such tech is “healthy or harmful”.
“Social media companies must also be far more open and transparent regarding how they operate and particularly how they moderate, review and prioritise content,” it writes.
Concerns have been growing about children’s use of social media and mobile technology for some years now, with plenty of anecdotal evidence and also some studies linking tech use to developmental problems, as well as distressing stories connecting depression and even suicide to social media use.
Although the committee writes that its dive into the topic was hindered by “the limited quantity and quality of academic evidence available”. But it also asserts: “The absence of good academic evidence is not, in itself, evidence that social media and screens have no effect on young people.”
“We found that the majority of published research did not provide a clear indication of causation, but instead indicated a possible correlation between social media/screens and a particular health effect,” it continues. “There was even less focus in published research on exactly who was at risk and if some groups were potentially more vulnerable than others when using screens and social media.”
The UK government expressed its intention to legislate in this area, announcing a plan last May to “make social media safer” — promising new online safety laws to tackle concerns.
The committee writes that it’s therefore surprised the government has not commissioned “any new, substantive research to help inform its proposals”, and suggests it get on and do so “as a matter of urgency” — with a focus on identifying people at risk of experiencing harm online and on social media; the reasons for the risk factors; and the longer-term consequences of the tech’s exposure on children.
It further suggests the government should consider what legislation is required to improve researchers’ access to this type of data, given platforms have failed to provide enough access for researchers of their own accord.
The committee says it heard evidence of a variety of instances where social media could be “a force for good” but also received testimonies about some of the potential negative impacts of social media on the health and emotional wellbeing of children.
– Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch
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