Social media is a public health emergency

London: Do you know what will eventually do in social media? The health issue: it's killing us, mind and body. As I predicted that on Sky News the other day, it occurred to me that, in a previous decade I would've said it with a cigarette on the go, the interviewer pausing to offer me a light.

But just as health scares stopped smoking in public, so social media will eventually become a taboo, even a matter for state regulation. I for one will be very happy. I wish we could uninvent it altogether.

Not a week goes by without another story of its deficiencies.  Mark Zuckerberg is as responsible for what's posted on his site as I would be for permitting racist haikus to be painted on my roof, and it's time to stop passing the buck.

Facebook: Is it a health issue?

We've had the conversation about how individual users need to learn to be nicer online and, thanks to other legal actions, we're slowly getting there – but there will always be extremists, fake news and frauds, and these platforms ought to have found a better way of weeding them out by now.

They insist they're trying their best and that it's awfully hard – but as Mr Lewis says, their business model militates against doing what it takes. He's right. Why wouldn't these sites want to stick to a Wild West model that keeps costs low while maximising profit?

There is always a gap between the invention of something and its regulation, in which it is argued that it's too ingenious, too dynamic to be controlled by politicians who don't understand it (and, yes, most of them don't).

Social media is the 21st century equivalent of the railroad or pharmaceutical pioneers, who also warned that, if you regulate them, it would kill them. We did. It didn't. They just became safer, and evolved from industries that were wholly speculative to those with a more fixed, responsible relationship to the rest of society.

The giants of social media – are they like the giants of railroads or cigarettes?

This process is so historically commonplace, you might almost call it inevitable. The question isn't when social media will be brought to heel but by what.

As Mrs Lovejoy cries in The Simpsons: "Won't somebody please think of the children?" Step forward, Jeremy Hunt.

Britian's Health Secretary says that he asked the social media companies six months ago to discuss improving the mental health of kids who use social media, but that almost nothing has been done. Now he's threatening legislation. Mr Hunt is concerned with enforcing age restrictions, tackling cyber-bullying and limiting screen time.

The best of what he's calling for isn't censorship of content, which would be a violation of everyone's civil liberties, but controls on access, which we apply selectively all the time to obviously bad things.

Smoking isn't outlawed – we just say three-year-olds can't do it. Drinking alcohol is perfectly legal – we just ask you don't imbibe before driving a bus. The internet meets all the necessary qualifications for control of exposure: it is addictive, is linked to rising levels of depression, and we all know that sitting hunched over a screen all day swiping right is bad for the body.

The counter argument is that we should control the use of social media by us and our children; that we must exercise a bit of discipline. I'd agree but for the unusual thing about computer technology: we cannot escape the damned thing.

Even as an adult who has conquered smoking and a dangerous addiction to wargaming, I've found it near impossible not to be sucked into social media, which I'm required to be on by my job (otherwise, I'd delete my accounts and throw my phone in the river).

How can I expect children to avoid its temptations when all their friends are on it and schools – for some eccentric reason – actively teach and encourage the use of electronic devices? To ask parents to regulate an evil that the rest of society is pushing down our throats is a bit rich.

There is thus something absurd about executives at the tech giants announcing that they limit their own children's access to social media – not only because it smacks of hypocrisy but because we all know such discipline is near-impossible now. Their kids will be on Facebook. They're all on Facebook, even if you don't know it.

Some day, the puritanism of the Silicon Valley elites will catch on. Restaurants will ban the use of iPhones at the table. When drunk and in the mood, we'll have to pop outside the pub to stand in the street and have a cheeky Tweet.

But governments do need to take a lead, both for the sake of public health and to confront monopolies that exercise far too much power.

For writing this column, I will be accused of advancing censorship, but make no mistake: social media is in the mindbending business, too. It is dominated by the Left and, enjoying an astonishing reach right into your homes and schools, is pushing a liberal cultural agenda that will, in time, do as much damage as the internet has done to our spines and self-esteem. We are reaching a historical moment when the state must play nanny and say: "Switch it off, children – and go outside."

Telegraph, London 

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