By Silvia Martelli
On April 22, health secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote a letter to leading internet companies, such as Facebook and Google, accusing them of “collectively turning a blind eye to a whole generation of children exposed prematurely to the harmful emotional side effects of social media”. To address the critical situation, he claimed that the government will impose legislation to protect young people online if companies fail to outline action on cutting harmful exposure to the internet before the end of April.
Mr. Hunt already met major internet companies six months ago, asking them to cooperate in order to improve the wellbeing of young people. “There have been a lot of warm words […]”, he recently claimed, “but the overall response to my challenge has been extremely limited, leaving me to conclude that a voluntary, joint approach has not been sufficient”.
Mr. Hunt’s worries are simply the honest acknowledgment of an increasingly digitized era that tends to swallow up defenseless children more and more. This same reality seems to be largely ignored by most internet companies, which, following the secretary’s ultimatum, now have to act on screen-time limits, reduction of cyber-bullying and abuse, and improvement of age verification to prevent underage exposure to websites.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (APP) defines screen time as the “time spent using digital media for entertainment purposes” – whether that is gaming, using social media or watching Youtube videos. In the case of children, screen time has substantial negative effects, such as attention problems, school problems, sleep disorders and obesity. It is therefore crucial for parents to successfully monitor and reduce kids’ exposure to the internet, stimulating ‘productive time’ instead. In the 21st century, this seems an impossible task, and yet it could be achieved through some basic steps: replacing ipads during meals by constructive conversations, privileging physical activities over videogames, and fostering in-persons relationships over social media toxic interactions. A legislation in favor of reducing screen time could be only helpful for parents left with this difficult task, making their job a little easier.
Cyber-bullying (bullying that takes place over digital mediums) is another key reason behind the necessity of imposing children protection laws. Recent statistics show that 1 in 3 children experience cyberbullying, 1 in 4 had it happen more than once, and only 1 in 10 will inform a parent or trusted adult of the abuse. Furthermore, cyberbullying victims are 2 to 9 times more likely to contemplate suicide. Given these statistics, it is extremely irresponsible and morally corrupt for companies to ignore this critical situation, allowing cyber-bullying to badly impact young lives by generating depression, anxiety and addiction to social media themselves (aninquiry set up Tory MP Alex Chalk, The Children’s Society and YoungMinds shows indeed that victims of cyberbullying check their news feeds much more often than non-victims). It is therefore imperative that action is taken towards healthy behaviors on social media.
If companies fail to outline a plan to protect children, then hopefully a new legislation will manage to tackle the issues. Surely, parents are children’s main role models, and as such it is crucial that they truly commit to changes that promote healthy digital media habits, such as leaving technology out of the bedroom at night. Yet, they should not be left alone with the tough decision of whether to allow their children to use “platforms they are too young to access”, or to exclude them “from social interaction that often the majority of their peers are engaging in”, in Mr. Hunt’s words.