Policy seeks Evidence: The problem with Jeremy Hunts and social media

Jeremy Hunt considers imposing a daily social media limit on children in a bid to address the “harmful emotional side effects of social media”, but the scientific evidence to support this drastic move does not exist.

The future seems rosy for Jeremy Hunt. In his newest letter to social media firms, he envisions a future where every child gets a state-imposed and universal social media limit, similar to the alcohol units recommended by government. After a child surpasses the set cut-off point, their social media access is cut for the day. Hunt makes it seem easy, practical, and better for children and adults alike.

The problem is that Jeremy Hunt still needs to find evidence to back up this drastic policy. He announced yesterday that his Chief Medical Officer will be taking charge of this. Well, as a scientist working in this area, I can tell Dame Sally Davies now: the evidence she wants does not exist. If she is not willing to ignore large parts of the scientific literature or exaggerate a minority of low-quality studies, her job to find the amount of ‘science’ to back up such significant state intervention will be impossible. And, to insert an important side-question, shouldn’t policy be based off of evidence – not the other way around?

Scientists examining child development and technology use have, for years, been trying to raise awareness of the misguided debate around children and screen time; a debate often devoid of significant scientific evidence. The common comparison between screen time and drugs like alcohol, indicates the misconception that many politicians and journalists share. Screen time isn’t a chemical that, when ingested, causes concrete physiological changes that can harm the body and cause long term dependency. It is a diverse and ever changing part of daily life.

Firstly, there is no concrete evidence that supports the common view that technology use is inherently harmful. The evidence base is low quality, and riddled with issues including biases in reporting and small effect sizes. Recent studies that got large amounts of press coverage and demonstrated a negative link between social media use and well-being, also evidenced that knowing a child’s social media use will only help you predict 1% of their depressive symptoms. That is an extremely small effect and raises questions about whether our debate to improve teen mental health is misplaced. Other research, for example, shows that the effects of a good night’s sleep and regular breakfasts before school on adolescent well-being are three times stronger than the negative effect of technology use.

Notwithstanding, the debate is oversimplifying the sheer diversity of technology and social media use. No individual’s social media use is the same, with the content and context changing with each use. It is therefore impossible to conclude what the universal effects of ‘social media use’ are. Want to know the true effect of X minutes of social media use on a child? The answer will almost always be “it depends”: it depends on the kind of social media use, the usage patterns, the child’s motivations and the context. Until we accept this inherent complexity in scientific research, policy making and media coverage, our efforts to help children and teenagers will be misplaced and inefficient.

So, Jeremy Hunt, if you want to create policy on the back of your personal experience and years of misguided media coverage, go ahead, but please do not misuse ‘science’ to back it up.