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UK Health Secretary Threatens Social Media Firms With Tougher Child-Protection Laws

UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt threatened to introduce news laws for social media firms if they do not introduce new measures to protect young people using their platforms.

In his own article in The Sunday Times, Hunt revealed that he had written a letter to the world’s “leading social media companies” to warn them that he “will now be working to explore what other avenues are open to use to pursue the reforms [he] need[s]” after talks in November failed to produce any meaningful changes.

Jeremy Hunt. Source:  NHS Confederation/Flickr

Jeremy Hunt. Source: NHS Confederation/Flickr

In November, the Health Secretary met with representatives from Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google and asked them to come up with practical solutions to three key issues: ineffective age verification tools, the excessive amount of screen time among young users, and unprecedented rates of cyber bullying.

“Since then, there have been a lot of warm words — and a few welcome moves to improve children’s online protection,” Hunt wrote in the article, “but the overall response to my challenge has been extremely limited, leaving me to conclude that a voluntary, joint approach has not been sufficient to deliver the safeguards we need to protect our children’s mental health.”

Hunt added that, in looking for new solutions, he would not “rule out” the possibility of implementing legislation.

NHS data obtained by The Guardian in September 2017 revealed that there had been a 68 percent increase in the number of girls aged 17 or under admitted to hospital in England because of self-harm, and a 26 percent rise in the number of boys. Experts told the newspaper that this was due in large part to the pressure social media put on young people.

In his letter to social media companies, Hunt wrote:

“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; this is both morally wrong and deeply unfair on parents, who are faced with the invidious choice of allowing children to use platforms they are too young to access, or excluding them from social interaction that often the majority of their peers are engaging in. It is unacceptable and irresponsible for you to put parents in this position.”

The letter went on: “Your industry boasts some of the brightest minds and biggest budgets globally. While these issues may be difficult, I do not believe that solutions are outside your reach: I do question whether [there] is sufficient will to reach them.”

The Health Secretary is due to reveal his new solutions in May, when he and Culture Secretary Matthew Hancock will publish their response to the Internet Safety Strategy consultation.