Belfast Telegraph

Access to 'harmful' social media must be restricted, BMA Belfast meeting told

Dr Sara Hedderwick
Dr Sara Hedderwick
Molly Russell, who took her own life
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

A Northern Ireland doctor has called for more restrictions on access to social media content that can be harmful to vulnerable people.

Dr Sara Hedderwick was speaking at the British Medical Association's annual conference, which is taking place in Belfast this week.

Her motion called on the BMA conference to note the "harmful effects that unfettered access to social media can have for patients with eating disorders".

It also called for members to support the regulation of social media content harmful to health.

The motion was passed by conference delegates.

Dr Hedderwick referenced the case of 14-year-old Molly Russell who took her own life in November 2017.

Molly's family later discovered she had searched for self-harm techniques via her Instagram account. The case led to widespread criticism of the social media platform.

"It is unbelievably easy to find in a few hashtags such as 'pro-ana', 'thinspo' and find yourself amongst an encyclopaedic array of 'how to do anorexia'," Dr Hedderwick added.

"Social media can be a force for good, but it has the ability to enable harm to occur to the most vulnerable in society.

"We need to support measures that make access to this sort of content much harder."

Molly, from Harrow in north west London, was found to have viewed content on social media linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide before ending her life.

Earlier this week, Sir Nick Clegg, Facebook's head of communications, argued that people are at risk of "overreacting to the bad" aspects of social media and damaging its positive potential as a result.

Sir Nick, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister during the coalition government, was hired by the tech giant last year.

He was speaking after Molly's father Ian warned that Facebook would not have a long-term future if it does not tackle the harmful material which can be found online.

Mr Russell said there is not a tech-lash, or a backlash against technology firms, and there is not an overreaction amid public concerns over content.

Speaking to reporters at the NSPCC's How Safe Are Our Children? conference in central London on Tuesday, he said: "I don't think this is a tech-lash. I think this is being quite supportive of social media companies.

"It is important to acknowledge that they (tech firms) do a lot of good, but sadly their platforms are being used by people to do harm and they have not done enough to prevent that.

"Unless change happens, their platforms will become toxic. I don't think there is, and it seems strange to say it with the might of Facebook now, a long-term future for them.

"I think that other less toxic platforms will evolve."

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