Online Harms

Our submission to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and Home Office consultation on the Online Harms White Paper

16 July 2019

The Health Foundation responded to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and Home Office consultation on the Online Harms White Paper.

The Health Foundation emphasised the impact that the proposed approach to regulating online harms may have on health and wellbeing within the UK. We welcomed efforts to combat illegality online and ensure that providers have a duty to ensure the safety of their products. There are substantial fears from both parents and the media around the impact of online harms to health, particularly for young people. This includes both societal harms to health, for example the spread of misinformation relating to vaccines as well as individual harms, such as those relating to mental health.

This is of concern given that rates of emotional problems and self-harm are rising, particularly among young women and girls. However, the existing evidence base demonstrating online harms to health is limited, and cannot consider any longer term consequences.

At the same time, the benefits of being online are often overlooked, particularly as voices of young people are not considered. For example, young people with Special Education Needs (SEN) and disabilities may be more likely to experience cyberbullying, but also emphasizes the value of support from online communities. The Health Foundation is concerned that without proper attention paid to the experiences of these users, new regulation will fail to minimise the risk of harm for all, and unintentionally limit access to the benefits of online technologies.

The Health Foundation asserts that to develop an effective, evidence-based approach to regulation there is an urgent need to better understand the impact of being online. This requires strong action to ensure much greater transparency from providers. This should include access to information regarding user activity, content moderation and the way in which technologies are designed, which can lead to the algorithmic amplification of potentially harmful content.

Information and data should be shared by providers with independent researchers to allow evaluation of risks and benefits that can be used to guide action from the regulator. This research should be done in collaboration with users, particularly young people. Without this input, the regulator cannot develop a set of standards which appropriately reflect the experiences and needs of the users they are aiming to protect.

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