Social media and online harms: Imperial researchers inform policymakers

Preventing online harms, an issue at the forefront of health and digital policymaking, was the focus of The Forum’s first ever online panel event.

The discussion explored social media, algorithms and online harms, seeking to answer how we can protect young and vulnerable people online.

Children’s exposure to online harms

Dr Nejra Van Zalk from Imperial’s Dyson School of Design Engineering outlined the issues facing young people online and her proposed solutions. She noted that 75% of young people have internet access, spending an average of almost 2.5 hours per day online, and are often exposed to harms such as pornography, radicalisation and unwanted sexual attention.

“We need to move away from the attention economy” Dr Van Zalk

Dr Van Zalk criticised social media platforms’ addictive nature, calling for a fundamental change at the design level to move away from the “attention economy” and safeguard children and young people online.

Regulating the internet

Ali Shah, Head of Technology Policy at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), highlighted the changing nature of the internet, underlined by COVID-19, and the need to continually assess whether people are treated fairly online.

He spoke about the ICO’s Age Appropriate Design Code which was recently laid before Parliament. Mr Shah worked with Dr Van Zalk’s students on developing the code, with a particular focus on protecting young people’s data and privacy online. He also argued that regulators need to cooperate in areas such as personal data.

Children’s mental health outcomes

Dr Dasha Nicholls from Imperial’s Department of Brain Sciences then outlined her research on the impact of social media on child and adolescent mental health. These platforms can both trigger and exacerbate mental health conditions due to harmful material on issues such as self-harm, suicide and eating disorders, as well as the strive for perfectionism which can lead young people to seek the unattainable.

Dr Nicholls noted the emerging evidence that high levels of screen time risks young children developing ADHD and argued that a combination of parental controls and good parental relationships are required to protect young people online.

The importance of education and inclusion

The panel’s chair, Ghislaine Boddington of the interactive design collective body>data>space, then opened up the discussion on the role of schools in teaching digital literacy, particularly for girls and young women.

Mr Shah argued that more support tools were needed for parents and children to have conversations about the internet. The panellists agreed that better assessments were needed to judge the impact of social media and potential government interventions, with Dr Van Zalk pointing out that “mental health is not just an absence of mental illness”.

“Relationships simply continue online after school” Dr Dasha Nicholls

Ms Boddington then welcomed questions from attendees, including one on the practical implications on the proposed regulations going through Parliament. Mr Shah hoped that social media companies would in future consider all potential users – including children or people with autism – when designing new features and platforms. Dr Nicholls highlighted that policymakers must recognise that children see no difference between online and offline relationships with friends.

The event concluded with panellists agreeing that children and young people must be at the heart of social media design practices going forwards, as policymakers continue to consider these crucial issues.

The panel event was attended by representatives from a range of government, parliamentary and third sector organisations, including the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the Home Office, the Mental Health Foundation and the Samaritans.

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