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Social media companies must be subject to legal ‘duty of care'

31 January 2019

The Science and Technology Committee has concluded that social media companies must be subject to a legal duty of care to help protect young people's health and wellbeing when accessing their sites.

The Committee today releases its latest Report, Impact of social media and screen-use on young people's health, which highlights the benefits of social media, while also revealing the potential risks children face when accessing social media. The Report suggests what can be done to protect young users when they are online.

Figures produced by Ofcom indicate that 70% of 12–15-year olds have a profile on a social media, while the OECD reports that 94.8% of 15-year olds in the UK used social media sites before or after school. Our inquiry examined whether the growing use of social media, and screens, among children was healthy or harmful, the evidence base for such claims, and whether any new measures or controls were required.

During the inquiry, over 3,000 young people were surveyed, the Committee held an evidence session with young people to hear about their experiences, facilitated focus groups in Westminster with students from Welland Park Academy and took part in an outreach session in Reading with parents.

Duty of Care

Social media companies must be subject to a formal legal duty of care to their users.

While the Committee heard from witnesses who stated that social media can have a positive impact, the evidence received also pointed towards the potential negative effects of social media on the health and emotional wellbeing of young people.

These ranged from damage to sleep patterns and body image, to bullying, grooming and ‘sexting'. Although these risks existed before social media, its rise has helped to facilitate it—especially child abuse. The National Crime Agency reported that referrals it received from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children had "increased by 700% over the last four years”. Despite these shocking statistics, the quality and quantity of academic evidence on the effects of social media remains low.

Social media companies must be willing to share data with researchers, within the boundaries of data protection legislation, especially on those who are at risk from harmful behaviours.

The Government should consider what legislation is required to improve researchers' access to this type of data, to ensure that social media companies help protect their young users, identify those at risk and help improve current online safety measures.

Standards lottery

The Committee also finds that there is currently a loose patchwork of regulation and legislation in place, resulting in a "standards lottery". This approach does very little to ensure that young people are as safe as possible when they go online. Key areas that are not currently the subject of specific regulation, identified by Ofcom, include:

  • platforms whose principal focus is video sharing, such as YouTube;
  • platforms centred around social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter; and
  • search engines that direct internet users towards different types of information from many Internet services, such as Google and Bing.

This Report recommends that a comprehensive regulatory framework, one that clearly sets out the responsibilities of social media companies towards their users, must be created. 

The Government's forthcoming Online Harms White Paper, and subsequent legislation, presents a crucial opportunity to put a world-leading regulatory framework in place. However, the Committee is concerned that the Government's forthcoming framework may not be as coherent as it ought to be. The Report recommends a package of measures which would form the basis of a comprehensive regulatory framework.

This would mean establishing a regulator to provide guidance on how to spot and minimise the harms social media presents, as well take enforcement action when warranted. These enforcement actions must be supported by a strong sanctions regime in order to be effective.

Child exploitation

The Report stresses the urgency with which the Government must act to tackle the current threat young users face. An effective partnership is needed, across civil society, technology companies, law enforcement, the Government and non-governmental organisations, aimed at ending child sexual exploitation (CSE) and abuse online. The Committee recommends that the Government sets itself an ambitious target to halve reported online CSE in two years and eliminate it in four years.

Chair's comments

Rt Hon Norman Lamb MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said:

“Throughout our inquiry we have heard from a range of experts, including young people, about both the benefits of social media, as well as deep concerns about its potential risks to the health, safety and wellbeing of young people. It is frustrating that there is not yet a well-established body of research examining the effects of social media on younger users.

“More worryingly, social media companies—who have a clear responsibility towards particularly young users—seem to be in no rush to share vital data with academics that could help tackle the very real harms our young people face in the virtual world. 

“We understand their eagerness to protect the privacy of users but sharing data with bona fide researchers is the only way society can truly start to understand the impact, both positive and negative, that social media is having on the modern world. During our inquiry, we heard that social media companies had openly refused to share data with researchers who are keen to examine patterns of use and their effects. This is not good enough. 

“The Government also has a vital part to play and must act to put an end to the current ‘standards lottery' approach to regulation. We concluded that self-regulation will no longer suffice. We must see an independent, statutory regulator established as soon as possible, one which has the full support of the Government to take strong and effective actions against companies who do not comply.

“This approach does nothing to encourage the protection of younger users online. It is imperative that we take every step to protect young people online as we do offline.”

Further information

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