It is clear that social media offers a number of benefits to young people, directly as regards education and also as part of growing up in the 21st century. However, there are a number of potential harms to young people including risks of negative feelings of body image, of bullying, of declining mental health, and of the possibility of being targeted for radicalisation or violent extremism.
Governments clearly have a duty both to protect young people as regards social media, but also to provide a stable regulatory environment for technology companies to operate in, particularly as regards companies which span multiple territories. Lax regulation can lead to harms for young people.
But overly prescriptive regulation can lead to perverse and unintended consequences, as well as restricting access to the benefits of social media as a result of overly drastic restrictions on its use. The G20 represent the base of many of the world’s largest technology companies, as well as very high levels of young people with internet access, and some of the most developed systems of voluntary regulation in a number of fields. Therefore, the role of social media and technology in the mental health of young people should be at the forefront of the G20 agenda.
This policy paper recommends the following to be considered by the G20 education ministers:
- A voluntary compact between technology and social media companies and the G20. The G20 should take forward the concept of a social media code of conduct and lead work to create a G20-wide voluntary compact. This should set out how, in exchange for a commitment from the G20 not to unduly regulate the scope and beneficial activities of social media companies, such companies pledge a set of world-leading best practice standards in the areas of: promoting good mental health; preventing bullying and keeping young people safe online; and protecting young people against the risks of radicalisation and violent extremism.
- The G20 should encourage national governments to include digital literacy as a major part of the schooling curriculum. Schools should not only provide guidance for parents but also improve students’ and teachers’ knowledge in this regard. Technology can provide many benefits to the learning experiences of children and using this innovation to enhance the educational journey of young people should be balanced against the need to protect them.
- The G20 and national governments should promote the collection and availability of timely, reliable and accurate data. Improved data and improved access to data that can help in safeguarding children in their online interactions is needed. This also includes improving linkages across different data sets such as health, education and social care.
- The digital industry should build safety features into all products which are designed for children and young people as part of the design process. Additionally, it should react more quickly to abuse by removing the accounts of perpetrators and reporting the abuse. It should remove inappropriate content rapidly.