Links between social media and mental health problems among young people are not proven, Sir Nick Clegg has said.
The former deputy prime minister, who joined Facebook last October following his ousting as a Lib Dem MP, told an audience in Berlin that while he did not take criticism of his current employer lightly, there was no research to suggest that such platforms were damaging to their users.
In a wide-ranging speech that also covered claims Russia used Facebook to influence the outcome of the Brexit vote three years ago, the 52-year-old said studies into an alleged link had so far been “wildly divergent”.
Sir Nick argued: “I have been a campaigner for mental health all my political career. I understand the intuitive association many people make between social media and the anxiety caused by the peer pressure young people feel to present themselves in a certain way.
“But, to date, research on the impact of social media on youth well-being has been wildly divergent – some studies show positive impact, some negative impact, and others no impact at all.”
Citing the results of an eight-year Oxford University study that surveyed thousands of children, Sir Nick said researchers were “just now starting to arrive at a consensus” that “decreases in well-being and increases in mental health problems” among teenagers “are not linked to social media”.
He added that Facebook was “constantly seeking to improve the safeguards for young and vulnerable users”, but said the “causal links are not currently supported by clear evidence”.
The speech in Germany came five months after Sir Nick said Facebook was entering a phase of “reform, responsibility and change”, amid demands it “purge” its platforms of content related to suicide and self-harm.
Back in January, the father of 14-year-old Molly Russell accused social media platforms of playing a part in his daughter taking her own life after she was found to have viewed material related to anxiety, self-harm and suicide on apps including Facebook-owned Instagram.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he had written to a number of internet companies to remind them of their duty to act, and Sir Nick acknowledged at the time that Facebook had to address the issue.
But a month after Instagram promised to remove such graphic images, a Sky News investigation found a number of disturbing videos and pictures still featured on the social media site.
Since then, the UK government has unveiled plans to potentially hold social media bosses personally liable for any users who come into harm as a result of content on their platforms.
Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has indicated that he would be happy for governments and regulators to play “a more active role” in policing the internet and the standards of big online companies – notably in helping to identify harmful content and political advertising.
:: Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email email@example.com in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK.