Under these arrangements, the government has stated it will set the direction through legislation, with decisions on processes and procedures to ensure platforms uphold a duty of care to their users to be taken by Ofcom.

The announcement that the regulator will assume responsibility for monitoring new and emerging online dangers, and for taking appropriate enforcement action follows recommendations made in the #NewFilters, published by RSPH in 2019. The report was the result of an inquiry through the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Media, and called for government to establish a duty of care on all social media companies, with Ofcom to act as regulator.

The Inquiry found that while social media can have a range of positive effects, including providing a platform for self-expression, enhancing social connections, and supporting learning, there are also many potential harms. For example, young people using social media to find support for mental health conditions are at high-risk of unintentional exposure to graphic content of self-harm, and some discourse around mental ill-health can unhelpfully “glamourise” mental illness and prevent young people from accessing professional help.

The 2019 Inquiry also revealed that:

  •      While 12% of children who spend no time on social networking websites have symptoms of mental ill health, this figure rises to 27% among those who are on the sites for three or more hours a day.
  • Pressure to conform to beauty standards perpetuated and praised online can encourage harmful behaviours to achieve “results”, including disordered eating and body shame
  • Forty-six percent of girls compared to 38% of all young people report that social media had a negative impact on their self-esteem.

RSPH and the APPG on Social Media have also recommended that Government:

  • Lead a review into whether the “addictive” nature of social media is sufficient for official disease classification.
  • Urgently commission robust, longitudinal research into understanding the extent to which the impact of social media on young people’s mental health and wellbeing is one of cause or correlation.  

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said:

“While social media can and often does play a positive role in our lives, our research with young people and various experts has made us aware of the serious and very real impact that platforms can have on the public’s mental health and overall wellbeing. It is clear that the voluntary action taken by industry so far has not gone nearly far enough, and we therefore welcome this announcement as a vital step toward providing health and safety protection, in what is currently a lawless digital playground. For those most vulnerable to the harms of social media, these new powers cannot come soon enough.”

 Commenting on the UK Government’s announcement, Social Media APPG Chair, Chris Elmore MP, said:

“Just as Ofcom shields children from inappropriate content on TV before 9pm, today’s announcement needs to do the same for social media platforms — and it needs to happen quickly. Spring must mean April, not July. Social media is a beast that needs to be tamed. Time after time, social media giants have proven that they’re unwilling to act voluntarily to properly protect their users from harm. For the sake of our children’s mental health and wellbeing, it’s imperative that Ofcom is given the resources it needs to bring some order and common sense to this online Wild West.”

A spokesperson for The Carnegie UK Trust said: “Ofcom is well used to taking on huge multinationals but also deft enough to handle low-risk, small businesses with a light touch. It is the right decision to ask it to regulate social media companies’ duty of care. However, the UK Government must now give Ofcom the power it needs to introduce codes of practice that will be critical to a duty of care regime. Until that moment arrives, we are no closer to putting theory into practice. Lord McNally’s Bill, which is currently in the House of Lord’s, is the way to deliver those powers quickly."