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British MPs think social media addiction should be treated as a disease

A new report calls for ‘meaningful action’ to lessen the negative impact social media can have

A new report compiled by MPs in the UK suggests that social media addiction should be considered a disease.

As the Guardian reports, the all-party parliamentary group, with help from the Royal Society for Public Health charity, called for more research on the mental and psychological effects of social media. In particular, the report highlights how sites like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook form an “online Wild West” that are hurting the mental health and wellbeing of young people.

Further, MPs involved in the report concluded that more needs to be done to combat graphic online content, including those illustrating self-harm and suicide. This follows the 2017 death of 14-year-old Molly Russell – her parents launched a campaign to highlight the concerning effects of social media on the mental health of children and young people. Her father has asserted that Instagram “helped kill” his daughter, after she was found to have accessed images of self-harm on the platform.

“It is paramount that we protect young people to ensure they are kept safe and healthy when they are online,” the MPs say. The report calls for long-term studies that can deduce a clinical diagnosis and definition for social media addiction. It suggests following the lead of the World Health Organisation, which has proposed gaming addiction is categorised as a mental illness in the next revision of its International Classification of Diseases manual. WHO asserts that it would define anyone who has shown significant impairment in ‘personal, family, social, educational, or work lives’ because of excessive use of computer games for at least 12 months. MPs suggest in the report that a similar definition could apply to those who show behaviour like this related to social media use.

Additionally, MPs are suggesting that a 0.5 per cent levy on social media networks’ profits could help fund such research, as well as educational initiatives and health guidelines.

The report suggests that the government issues a formal health guidance aimed at people under the age of 24 to help them avoid or treat excessive social media use, by “establish(ing) a duty of care on all social media companies with registered UK users aged 24 and under in the form of a statutory code of conduct, with Ofcom to act as regulator.”

“I truly think our report is the wake-up call needed to ensure – finally – that meaningful action is taken to lessen the negative impact social media is having on young people’s mental health. For far too long social media companies have been allowed to operate in an online Wild West,” MP Chris Elmore, who co-chaired the group, said.

Some social networks have made an effort to tackle mental health on their platforms – Instagram launched sensitivity screens to blur images related to graphic, suicide and self harm-related content, and blocks certain hashtags and accounts that post harmful content.

The report also highlights evidence that young girls were more likely to suffer from low self-esteem triggered by social media. Both gender were mentally affected by extended periods of time on social networks. A study last year found that a quarter of 14-year-old girls in the UK are self-harming, while 60 per cent of young people referred to UK mental health services left untreated. The strain on UK-wide mental health services continues.

The Royal Society for Public Health’s chief executive Shirley Cramer said that more research should be carried out “to improve our understanding of the health harms, as well as benefits, from social media on our generation of digital natives, and that this research should be supported by industry itself”.

Read our investigation into Instagram and its impact on mental health here, and read the full parliamentary report here.