Facebook should identify children at risk of mental health problems, Jeremy Hunt says

Facebook must identify children at greatest risk of mental illness and help ensure they get NHS help, Jeremy Hunt has said.

The Health Secretary said social media giants who are “smart enough” to use data to target young consumers with adverts will be compelled to use the same intelligence to help tackle Britain’s growing mental health problem.

Last year Mr Hunt met executives from Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Microsoft to ask them to become “part of the solution” to growing levels of mental distress among children and teenagers.

Companies were asked to offer pop-up messages offering advice to young users who spend too long glued to social media, to take action against underage use of sites, and to tackle cyber bullying.

But now the Health Secretary has expressed impatience with the failure of the technology giants to take decisive action.

Ministers are now understood to be considering introducing legislation if the impasse remains in an effort to force social media companies to act more responsibly.

In a meeting with the Royal College of Psychiatrists on Monday, Mr Hunt said companies were “brilliant” at using technology for their own interests, yet failing to take simple actions which they could “very, very easily” take to help protect those growing up in a digital age.

“If they are smart enough to be able to target a consumer who happens to live near a Sainsbury’s, to suggest they might pop into Sainsbury’s and to know they like chocolate and target them with a chocolate ad then they can certainly help us identify their users who are at the highest risk of mental illness,” he said.

“I think it’s massively in their self-interest to do that and I want to get tangible here,” the Health and Social Care Secretary said.

Ministers want sites to introduce messages which direct users to relevant help, if their patterns of behaviour – such as seeking out sites about self-harm, anorexia or suicide – suggest a mental health problem.

They also want the technology giants to share intelligence with the NHS about the type of users at greatest risk of such problems, in order to help services respond to the growing numbers of children suffering mental health distress.

Mr Hunt said the companies had failed to take action on a number of measures, many of which could have been done quite easily, such as taking firmer action to stop underage users accessing sites.

“I think there are some very specific things they can do,” the Health and Social Care Secretary said.

“One of them is help us stop underage users. All the social media companies have a policy of saying you shouldn’t be under 13 , but people go on and lie about their age.

“Now these guys are brilliant at technology so surely they can find a way of stopping people under 13 setting up accounts. Because of course if you lie, if you say you’re 13 when you’re seven, by the time you get to 13 the website thinks you’re 19 and who knows what sort of content you’re going to be able to access.

“So they could help us with that. They could help us by sharing information about cyberbullying about which we know very little because at the moment they don’t share their data. Things like that they could do very very easily and I think they should.”

Soon after the meeting with technology giants last year, Mr Hunt, who has three young children, turned on Facebook, warning the company to “stay away from my kids” after it launched Messenger service aimed at under-13s.

Research has shown a 68 per cent rise in levels of self harm among teenage girls since 2011, which psychiatrists say has been fuelled by videos and images of such practices being shared online.

Last year a study by University College London found one in four teenage girls reported symptoms of depression, with latest data showing a 31 per cent rise in the number of young children receiving psychiatric treatment.

Experts said children were struggling to cope with mounting levels of anxiety, bullying and depresssion, fuelled by social media.

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