For the last few years, some psychologists have been warning of the dangers of social media addiction—a phenomenon that whistleblowers from within tech industry say has been deliberately fostered by companies such as Facebook and Google.
Now, lawmakers in the U.K. say social media addiction should be formally classified as a disease, and the companies behind the platforms should pay a 0.5% tax on their profits in order to help fix the problem.
A cross-party group of parliamentarians on Monday published their report following an inquiry into “managing the impact of social media on young people’s mental health and wellbeing,” which ran from April 2018 to January this year.
“Our Inquiry shows that there are aspects of social media which are positive—particularly for bringing together people with similar interests, reducing loneliness and helping communities stay in touch,” wrote Chris Elmore and William Wragg, the lawmakers who led the inquiry.
“However, there are also several aspects of social media that can have very damaging effects on young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Therefore, it is paramount that we protect young people to ensure they are kept safe and healthy when they are online. That is why our recommendations seek to improve measures to protect the vulnerable.”
Specifically, the probe found that while 12% of children who entirely avoid social networking sites show symptoms of mental ill health, the figure is 27% for those spending three or four hours a day using such services. Social media particularly affects the self-esteem of girls in a negative way (46% of girls versus 38% of all young people) and platforms too often show those looking for mental health support material that “glamorizes” mental illness, the report said.
The lawmakers want to create legal obligations that give social media platforms a “duty of care” when dealing with younger people, with media regulator Ofcom being put in charge of enforcing those obligations. This is not a unique call—earlier this month, a House of Lords report about “regulating in a digital world” urged the same thing, and Ofcom itself is itching to regulate social networks much as it does telecoms companies.
The call for a social media tax is more novel. The issue here is that there’s not a lot of solid scientific evidence out there about the link between social media and mental health problems, which makes it difficult to figure out who is most at risk and how they might be helped.
The parliamentary group called on the social media platforms to give researchers all the data they need to analyze the problem and—following the polluter pays principle—to pay a 0.5% levy on their profits to fund a “Social Media Health Alliance” that would commission and review research and “establish clearer guidance for the public.”
Based on their reported U.K. profits in the last couple years, that would run to about $415,000 a year for Facebook and $1.34 million for Google. The U.K. government is also planning to implement a new 2% tax on Big Tech’s revenues.
Neither Facebook nor Google had provided comment on the new proposals at the time of writing.