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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Facebook given a week to report on UK child welfare concerns

Jeremy Hunt accuses Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and other social media of 'turning a blind eye' to children's mental health and well-being

Facebook given a week to report to UK government on child welfare issue. Reuters / Thomas White
Facebook given a week to report to UK government on child welfare issue. Reuters / Thomas White

Britain threatened on Sunday to draw up new laws to regulate Facebook and other social media giants if they don't do more to protect young people at risk.

Health Minister Jeremy Hunt didn't say what kind of legislation the UK might impose, but gave the companies an end-of April deadline to come up with ways to tackle cyber bullying, age verification and the amount of time young people spend online. The National Bullying Helpline receives 1,000 inquiries about cyber bullying every day.

The UK's chief medical officer has also been asked to review how technology impacts the mental health of children, with an eye to recommending daily screen time limits.

"I worry a generation is being exposed prematurely to the emotional side‑effects of social media," Health Minister Jeremy Hunt wrote in a Sunday Times article.

Mr Hunt said he met representatives from Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google six months ago and challenged them to work with the government to improve the mental health and well-being of children.

Aside from "a lot of warm words", Mr Hunt said he's seen little action. He accused the companies of "turning a blind eye" to the effect social media had on children's well-being.

In a strongly-worded letter to the companies, Mr Hunt also called their failure "unacceptable and irresponsible."

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"I am concerned that your companies seem content with a situation where thousands of users breach your own terms and conditions on the minimum user age," Mr Hunt said in a letter sent to tech firms and reported in the Sunday Times.

"I fear that you are collectively turning a blind eye to a whole generation of children being exposed to the harmful emotional side effects of social media prematurely."

"An industry that boasts some of the brightest minds and biggest budgets should have been able to rise to the challenge," he said.

Google's public policy manager Katie O’Donovan said the company understood the challenge of helping children make the most of the internet in a safe way.

"We launched Family Link to help parents set digital ground rules for their children such as screen time limits. We also developed the first online safety course to be officially accredited and have taught it to over 40,000 school children so far,” Ms O'Donovan said in a statement sent to The National.

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Microsoft and Yahoo! didn't respond to requests for comment on Sunday. Facebook told Sky News that the company shared Mr Hunt's ambition to create a safe and supportive environment for young people online.

Mr Hunt may come up against privacy campaigners should he decide to enact stringent new laws.

Open Rights Group has already called age verification a "huge threat to privacy for millions across the UK".

Mental health campaigner Natasha Devon said it appeared that Jeremy Hunt has suddenly realised the impact of social media giants who have changed the cultural landscape.

"Having said that, it's not going anywhere. I feel like a lot of the proposals are basically saying we want to turn back time and that's not going to happen," she added.

It isn't the first time Mr Hunt has attacked Facebook. In 2017, when the company released a version aimed at children, Mr Hunt warned Facebook to "stay away from my kids".

In 2016, Mr Hunt questioned why media companies can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18.

Britain has also clashed with internet companies over payment of taxes, the spread of fake news, extremist material, and the collection of personal data.