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expert reaction to Science and Technology Committee Report on the Impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health

Reactions to the UK Science and Technology Committee report on the affect of social media and screen use on young people.

Prof Andrew Przybylski, Associate Professor and Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, said: 

“The Science and Technology Committee report on the Impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health is probably the most important document the government has produced or commissioned on the impact of new digital technologies on young people in the past decade (since the 2010 Byron Review). Understanding it’s the work of the of many stakeholders it is a fairly coherent document that has a number of clear strengths and only a handful of loose ends.

“In terms of loose ends, the report could have been more clear on the purpose and structure of the regulatory framework. I am concerned that this ambiguity might allow a very promising enterprise to have its agenda unduly influenced by industry, special interests, or a politico’s pet project. An explicit grounding in evidence based decision making would have been ideal.

“In terms of strengths, the committee and authors should be praised for distinguishing between high and low quality science and for admitting that what we do not know about the effects of social media screens is far exceeds what we think we know. It is clear that the next steps for good regulation is building an effective evidence base and not rushing to quick fixes. The report is sensitive to the fact that not all studies are created equal and that open and robust scientific evidence is needed. The key clause was this:

“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.”

and

“We also call on social media companies to make anonymised high-level data available, for research purposes, to bona fide researchers so that a better understanding of social media’s effects on users can be established. The Government should consider what legislation is required to improve researchers’ access to this type of data.”

“Many experts cited in the report including Dr Max Davie from the RCPCH:

“expressed his frustration at companies like Facebook and Twitter who “have data”, but who were “not sharing it with researchers to look at the actual consequences, the patterns of use and the effect.”

And Dr Heather Woods from the University of Glasgow:

“very difficult to access data […] the data are there, but enabling us to have access to it would give us a much more constructive answer to your question[s]”.

Our research group strongly shares these views and we have proposed an open science framework for teams of independent scientists. We argued:

“social media companies “collect, store, and profit from extremely rich and sensitive data on our daily lives” and were potentially “indispensable partners for the large-scale transparent scientific investigations that will lead to actionable evidence-based policy insights.”

“This report joins the RCPCH screen time guidance and our latest published research that suggests we might as a society be pivoting.”

Dr Bob Patton, Lecturer in Clinical Psychology, University of Surrey, said:

“This timely review of social media and screen use on the health and well-being of young people provides a useful overview of the issues and highlights a lack of reliable evidence regarding the long term consequences.

“The report is to be commended in that it considers both the benefits and the harms associated with social media, noting that such platforms facilitate but do not instigate either.

“Providers of social media and other screen based content do have a duty of care towards the end users, and part of this responsibility is in making the data regarding the who, what, when and where available to researchers, so that better quality studies can be undertaken to help understand the impact of exposure to different types of content. In particular, longitudinal studies that track health and behaviour over time will help to determine specific harms, and support the development of effective interventions.

“The report notes that both parents and teachers have a role to play in helping to develop digital literacy and resilience among young people. This will help them mitigate against potential harms and navigate away from problematic and potentially traumatic experiences. While providers themselves can also develop better systems to monitor the content of sites, user behaviours and to flag problematic interactions, perhaps even to predict such occurrences in advance and to intervene appropriately.”

Dr Max Davie, Officer for Health Promotion for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said:

“For the vast majority of young people, they live in a world where technology forms a staple part of everyday life, and whilst this needs to be accepted, we all should be mindful of the implications – good and bad – that this can pose. Today’s children and young people are digital natives, and as technology continues to rapidly develop, so too must research on the health implications associated with it. 

The Science and Technology Committee’s social media and screen use report is timely, and its recommendations to protect vulnerable users sensible. The creation of a clear regulatory framework that sets out the responsibilities of social media companies towards their users is particularly welcome. But any regulatory system will require careful monitoring as well as meaningful input from the users themselves – children and young people – to ensure it doesn’t stifle open discussion and prevent crucial safety advice reaching its vulnerable users.”

Dr Pete Etchells, Reader in Psychology and Science Communication at Bath Spa University, said:

“The Science and Technology Committee report is a much-needed sensible and objective assessment of the varying and complex effects that social media and screen use can have on younger populations. The report rightly notes that there is a range of both positive benefits and negative effects of screen use, while also acknowledging that screens are not necessarily the source of risk or harm – they merely have the potential to amplify them. The report recommends that a comprehensive regulatory framework for social media companies is urgently needed to ensure that their products don’t lead to demonstrable harm. While this is an important recommendation, it is one which absolutely needs to be based on a clear and solid scientific evidence base. It’s particularly encouraging, then, to see that there is an emphasis in the report on generating new opportunities for research. The suggestions – that legislation to ensure social media companies share their data with researchers with relevant expertise is needed, along with new periodic funding calls to commission robust and open research – are timely and welcomed.”

All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink: http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/tag/screen-time/

Declared interests

Prof Andrew Przybylski: Andrew Przybylski submitted written evidence to this enquiry.

Dr Max Davie: The RCPCH submitted written evidence (SMH0156) to this enquiry.

Dr Pete Etchells: Pete Etchells submitted written evidence (SMH0116) as part of this inquiry, but otherwise had no involvement in its production.

None others received.

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