A report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists has concluded that social media firms such as Facebook and Twitter should be obliged to hand over data to researchers looking into the risks of social media use.
The college represents the UK’s 18,000 psychiatrists, so is as leading a voice in the debate around mental wellbeing online as any.
According to Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College, and a co-author of the report, “We will never understand the risks and benefits of social media use unless the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram share their data with researchers.”
The report urges big firms to voluntarily help with efforts to understand the impact of social media, in particular on the mental health of children and adolescents. It’s also not asking for access to all of the data collected by these firms, instead limiting it to anonymised information that includes the nature of content viewed, as well as the amount of time users are spending on social media platforms.
The request comes in part because the current report concludes that there is more and more evidence of links between social media use and poor mental health, but that it cannot establish certain causality between the two due to a lack of viable data to analyse.
Worries over the effects of social media have become a recurring theme in recent years. In early 2019 the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office launched what it said it would be an effective code of practise for online services to curb addictive patterns in young users, but it hasn’t exactly resulted in wholesale change.
Facebook, meanwhile, perhaps the leading firm in the report, has responded unconvincingly by underlining that it is “already taking a number of the steps recommended” by the report, including removing harmful content from its platforms and providing support when people find it. However, it has not addressed the request for data.
The UK government, for its part, has also weighed in to say that it is “developing world-leading plans to make the UK a safer place to be online. This includes a duty of care on online companies, overseen by an independent regulator with tough enforcement powers, to hold them to account.”
Whether this proves to be simply hot air from both parties until the story fades from view will remain to be seen.