Social Media and Health

– in the House of Commons at 1:18 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 1:18 pm, 30th April 2019

I would like to update the House on yesterday's social media summit and the progress we have made on tackling online harms to health. We called this summit to bring together the principal social media companies, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Google and others, as well as the Samaritans and the eating disorder charity Beat. It was the second such meeting I have held, along with the Education Secretary and the Minister for suicide prevention, on how we can protect people—particularly children—from online content that promotes eating disorders and self-harm and suicide, as well as on how we address the growing problem of anti-vaccination misinformation.

Social media companies have a duty of care to people on their sites. Just because they are global, it does not mean that they can be irresponsible. We have been resolute that we will act to keep the internet safe, especially for children, and I am grateful to the companies for their engagement.

We have all seen and heard about tragic cases of vulnerable children turning to self-harm and even taking their own lives after accessing graphic images online that promote and even encourage suicide and self-harm. In the same way, we know that online content on eating disorders can be extremely harmful to vulnerable children and young adults. I have met the parents of children, brought up in loving homes, who had no idea of the dangers that their child was being exposed to on their smart phone or tablet while they were supposed to be safe at home. We all know of parents whose children have been affected, and for all of us this is very close to home.

We must do everything we can to keep our children safe online, so I am pleased to inform the House that, as a result of yesterday’s summit, the leading global social media companies have agreed to work with experts from the Samaritans to speed up the identification and removal of suicide and self-harm content, and to create greater protections online. They will not only financially support the Samaritans to do the work; crucially, suicide-prevention experts from the Samaritans will determine what content is harmful and dangerous, and the social media platforms committed to either removing it or preventing others from seeing it, and to helping vulnerable people get the positive support they need.

The mainstream media already have well-established codes of practice and training for removing material that promotes suicide and self-harm. In my experience, the British media act with great responsibility on the matter, and it is time that social media companies did the same. This partnership marks, for the first time globally, a collective commitment to act, to build knowledge through research and insights, and to implement real changes that ultimately will save lives.

The social media companies also gave us an update on the actions they have already taken. Following the first summit in February, Instagram now has a policy globally of removing all graphic self-harm imagery, and other sites have also taken action, but there is much more to do and more content to remove. Importantly, the commitments that the companies made at yesterday’s summit are what the Samaritans asked for, and they are a positive step forward. The progress that we have made so far shows that we can effect positive change, but I know that the House feels strongly that just because these companies are global does not mean that we as a House cannot determine society’s rules and expectations. On this we are prepared to act too.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport recently published the Online Harms White Paper, which sets out the proposed regulatory framework for addressing online harms. It sets out a new statutory duty of care to require companies to take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services. Compliance with this duty of care will be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator, which will be responsible for producing codes of practice that will explain what companies need to do to fulfil their duty, and the robust action they need to take to remove illegal or harmful content. The White Paper also proposes the sharing of information, research and best practice to improve the understanding of harmful content across the industry.

The summit also allowed us to discuss how we can work together to tackle another online danger: the spread of anti-vaccination misinformation. Since Edward Jenner’s discovery, vaccination has saved hundreds of millions of lives around the world. Few innovations have reduced human misery so much. After clean water, vaccination has prevented more deaths and disease than anything else in human history. The science is settled: vaccination saved lives. It protects not only our children but other vulnerable people who cannot do anything about it themselves. Failure to vaccinate puts their lives at risk. The rise of social media now makes it easier to spread lies about vaccination, so there is a special responsibility on social media companies to act.

Coverage for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine in England decreased for the fourth year in a row last year, to 91%. There was a steep rise in confirmed measles cases last year, from 259 to 966. We forget that measles is a horrible disease. We have one of the most comprehensive vaccination programmes in Europe. The well-documented problems in America and on the continent are worse than here, but we are determined to get ahead of the problem, because failure to vaccinate has real and devastating consequences. Our action to promote vaccines is not limited to removing anti-vaccination misinformation online; we are promoting the objective facts about the importance of vaccination and increasing funding to primary care to improve access, and our prevention Green Paper will set out further actions.

Social media can be a great force for good and can help us promote positive messages, but it is the responsibility of us all to ensure that this new technology, with all its great potential and power, is moulded to the benefit of society. We will not duck this challenge. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health 1:25 pm, 30th April 2019

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. These social media platforms must be made to take responsibility for the harm caused by the dangerous fake news they host, because they are helping to fuel a public health crisis. He talks about the actions that platforms such as Instagram have taken since February, but I have just searched on Instagram and found images and videos of graphic self-harm; there are 8 million posts with the hashtag #suicide—from a quick glance, many are distressing—226,000 posts with the hashtag #killmyself, and 249,000 posts with the hashtag #selfinjury. I found similar pro-anorexia posts and the normalisation of eating disorders. I am sorry to have to share those examples with the House, but I think that we have to understand the scale of the challenge we face. As the father of two beautiful daughters, aged seven and five, I would be devastated if they saw such posts as they grow up.

Dangerous content should be blocked and taken down. I look forward to the Samaritans’ recommendations, so can the Secretary of State update us on the timescale? He talked about the Online Harms White Paper, but we need action immediately, so can he tell us when the proposed legislation will come before the House? When will the new regulator and duty of care be enforced? Can he guarantee that there will be criminal sentences for executives for serious breaches? In what circumstances would the maximum fine of 4% of global turnover be applied? If, God forbid, something similar to what happened to Molly Russell—I am sure that the whole House will want to praise her father for his brave campaigning—should happen to another child, what action would be taken against the social media companies?

I have also been able to find dangerous anti-vaccination propaganda on platforms such as Facebook, at a time when measles outbreaks are on the increase across Europe and the United States and in parts of the United Kingdom. Unvaccinated children are being turned away from schools in parts of Italy and banned from public areas in parts of New York. I would hate to see that happen here. UNICEF has warned that more than half a million children have missed their measles vaccination, which means the UK now has the third-worst ranking of all high-income countries. As the Secretary of State said, take-up of the MMR vaccine has now declined for the fourth year in a row, making coverage for the vaccine the lowest it has been since 2011-12.

I know that the Secretary of State said on the radio last week that he was considering banning unvaccinated children from schools in England, but we urgently need a clear vaccination action plan from the Government. This cannot be about penalising families. Yes, we need intervention with social media platforms when the legislation is in place, but while we wait for the legislation will he consider instructing Public Health England to launch an online social media campaign, on the platforms that are currently sharing anti-vaccination propaganda, to challenge those dangerous myths?

Will the Secretary of State also accept that our falling vaccination rates are not just about online activity? Public health services have been cut by £800 million. Our health visitors have been cut by 8% in recent years, and our school nurses by 24%. General practice has faced a funding squeeze, and GP numbers are down by 1,000 since 2015. At the same time, 2018-19 marks the first year that we have seen a reversal in the percentage of children receiving vital health check-ups on time since the measurement of these figures began: 14.5% of children are not receiving a six to eight-week review on time; 24% are not receiving a 12-month review on time; and the number of mothers over 28 weeks pregnant receiving their first face-to-face antenatal contact with a health visitor has fallen for the second year in a row. Will he therefore commit today to reversing public health cuts and restoring health visitor numbers, and will he invest in general practice so that we can meet the 95% national vaccination coverage rate, as recommended by the World Health Organisation? When does he expect us to meet that 95% rate?

Children are 20% of our population but 100% of our future. We must always put their health and wellbeing first. Yes, there has been some progress, but we need further action from the Government today.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has provided leadership on this agenda from his position as shadow Secretary of State. I am glad, listening to his response, that we agree very broadly on the direction we need to take. The agreement across the House is valuable in demonstrating to social media companies the clear consensus on the need for them to act, and to every parent in the land the importance of vaccination. That cross-party support is very, very valuable.

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Ian Russell, the father of Molly Russell, whom the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price, the Minister for suicide prevention, met this morning. He has been brave and eloquent in bringing these issues to light. I pay tribute to him and thank him for how he has spoken about what needs to be done. I know he is as determined as we are to ensure that action translates into saving more lives.

We agreed, after the meeting yesterday, to reconvene in two months’ time, by which time I expect further action from the social media companies. As I said in my statement, we have already seen some progress. I am glad that some of the global algorithms and global terms and conditions have been changed as a result of action taken by the UK Government. It is very important that we keep the pace up. In two months’ time, we expect to see further action from the social media companies and progress by the Samaritans on being able to define more clearly the boundary between harmful and non-harmful content. In each area of removing harms online, the challenge is to create the right boundary in the appropriate place. It is the challenge when tackling terrorist and child abuse material online, so that social media companies do not have to define what is and is not socially acceptable, but we as society do. I am delighted that the Samaritans will formally play that role on material relating to suicide prevention and self-harm, and that Beat will do so on material relating to eating disorders.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Online Harms White Paper. We are currently in the middle of a 12-week consultation. I hope he and everybody listening to this who has an interest will respond to it. We are clear that we will have a regulator, but we also genuinely want to consult widely. This is not really an issue of party politics, but of getting it right so that society decides on how we should govern the internet, rather than the big internet companies making those decisions for themselves. I have to say that the tone from the social media companies has changed in recent months and years, but they still need to do an awful lot. I look forward to working with him and others across the House to ensure we can deliver on this agenda.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

I welcome the Secretary of State’s work on this issue. Will he comment on stand-alone posts, tweets or messages which on their own do not seem that intimidating or threatening, but which have a cumulative effect that is nothing short of bullying, harassment and intimidation that can cause mental health problems for many of our young people? Will he ask social media companies to not just look at single posts, but the cumulative effect of people trying to intimidate others?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, the cumulative effect of posts on mental health, in particular eating disorders, came up in the discussion yesterday. We have to look at what the social media companies call the density of content—I think my hon. Friend put it rather better as the cumulative impact of lots of different posts. Social media companies’ algorithms are powerful enough to understand that and pick up on it. We need rules in place so that action can be taken when it is spotted by those algorithms.

Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

I too welcome the statement, the two summits that have already been held and, in particular, the announcement of funding to Samaritans. However, the scale of the task is absolutely huge. The scale of the donation to Samaritans is actually quite small both by comparison with that and with the profits the companies make. They are expected to make profits of £50 billion just this year. It is important to talk about preventing the promotion of eating disorders, self-harm and suicide, and I welcome that approach.

As chair of the all-party group on vaccinations for all, I particularly welcome, in World Immunisation Week, the Secretary of State talking about anti-vaccination. As the shadow Secretary of State said, the drop in uptake is caused not just by online, but by complacency. People have forgotten that measles is a killer. It used to kill 2.5 million people a year across the world. We have seen an outbreak in Europe, where 82,000 cases have led to over 70 deaths. It is important that we tackle misinformation. It is also important that we make it easy for busy mothers to get their children vaccinated by having health visitors and district nurses who try to help. It is partly that that has allowed Scotland to keep the rate above 95%, but we, like everywhere else, are still seeing that rate drip down and fall by 0.5% or 1%.

On the Online Harms White Paper, I welcome the talk about a regulator. I hope it will actually be a regulator and that there will not be voluntary or self-regulation. I would like to know when it is actually going to happen. Like many other pieces of proposed legislation, it is still in the long grass and the situation is urgent.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

The regulation of online harms will indeed be statutory. As I said, we are in the middle of a consultation on how, rather than whether, to put that in place. I am sure the hon. Lady will want to feed back, although I know her SNP colleagues in the Scottish Government in Edinburgh have been kept abreast of developments.

The hon. Lady raises complacency and financial resources. I will address both points. She is absolutely right that part of the problem is a complacency about some killer diseases, partly because we have hardly known them in this country for generations. As I said in my statement, measles is a horrible disease and a killer; it is deeply unpleasant. So, too, is rubella. Rubella might be hardly noticed by a pregnant woman. There might be a rash for three or four days which comes and goes, but the impact on the baby is permanent and very, very serious. On measles, rubella and other diseases, we have to be absolutely clear with the public about the consequences not only for their children but, even worse, for vulnerable children and adults who, maybe because they are immunosuppressed or very young, cannot have the vaccination. Their lives are directly threatened by a parent who chooses not to vaccinate. We need to be very clear and stark about that.

The hon. Lady mentions that the social media companies have contributed to Samaritans. That was Samaritan’s ask for this stage of putting together the organisation and experts it needs to provide clarity on the boundary of what is and is not acceptable in this space. I would, of course, be perfectly prepared to go and ask for more if more is needed. What is more, we are bringing forward a digital services tax. Historically, the global tax system has not worked well in taxing such companies fairly, because of the nature of how they make their money. We have worked for years to try to get a global consensus on how to tax them. We are now clear that we will bring forward the tax next year in the UK, regardless of whether we can get global consensus.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

I applaud the Secretary of State for taking this initiative, and I certainly endorse the comments about the good of vaccination. However, I hope that the warm words of the social media company that he recounted are matched by actions, because I am afraid that that is not the experience of the Home Affairs Committee, which again saw a woeful performance from the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube representatives who appeared before us last week.

Is the Secretary of State aware that it is not only a question of taking down or not allowing content on which those companies are not doing their job properly, but of the algorithms that they used actively promoting more extreme versions of what people may be searching for, whether that is material on the extreme right wing, terrorism, radicalisation or self-harm? Is he convinced that those companies will actually put their considerable money where he thinks their mouths are and make sure that serious interventions are made to stop this stuff being promoted to some of our most vulnerable citizens?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

My hon. Friend is a man after my own heart on this. Am I convinced? I am convinced that social media companies have committed to it, and it is our job to keep them to those commitments. That is why I have pushed for a long time for a statutory regulator in this space, and I am delighted that the Government are bringing one forward.

For years, we in the House asked social media companies to do something, and there was an argument that, because they are global, we cannot really impact how their algorithms work. That is just rubbish. We are the legislator for this country—we set the rules, and we have a big role in setting the norms and expectations of what happens here. Just because a platform is global does not mean that it can be outside the rule of law of this country, so we will legislate in this space, and there will be a regulator that will be able precisely to keep track of those commitments and make sure that they are followed up. Having said that, the last two meetings have been positive, and we have seen changes as a result. What we have not yet seen is all this content being removed, so there is clearly a long way to go.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I welcome the work that the Secretary of State is doing. However, following the question of Tim Loughton, a fellow member of the Home Affairs Committee, surely it is time to do much more on these algorithms, which push people into more and more extreme behaviour? I heard from a mum whose daughter had suffered from an eating disorder who was still being targeted with dieting videos on Instagram. That material was not too extreme to remove, but it certainly should not have been targeted at her daughter. The mum could get nothing done about it.

Our Select Committee staff set up a new YouTube account and were searching for news or politics, but they were increasingly targeted by extreme far-right material promoted by YouTube. Those algorithms push people to extremes—for profit. Surely it is time for much greater transparency and accountability on the entire business model and the way that it promotes all sorts of problems?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

The short answer is yes. My responsibilities as Health Secretary are to do with the impact on health, especially mental health, and eating disorders and self-harm are part of that. A separate but connected matter are anti-vaccination messages, which are a type of misinformation, or in some cases disinformation—actively false pushed information.

The social media companies say that they are removing this material from being promoted. For instance, graphic self-harm imagery will be taken down from Instagram. Our challenge is to make sure that that is done properly, because ultimately only if social media companies change their algorithms can we make this happen. That is why the new regulator is so important.

Photo of Julian Knight Julian Knight Conservative, Solihull

I welcome the Secretary of State’s initiative in this area and what he has told the House today. Through my work on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, I have been utterly horrified looking at online content relating to bulimia and eating disorders, and to what I describe as extreme online misogyny. That relates to the algorithms that Members have mentioned. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to see inside those companies’ black boxes? Unlike areas such as taxation, in which companies go to the easiest regime, if we set the bar high on online content, they have to comply and put their house in order.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

I pay tribute to the work that the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has done in this area, both when I was Culture Secretary and since. Its work and the approach it has taken are groundbreaking, and that has played a part in the change in attitudes that we have seen from the social companies, which at least now accept that it is their responsibility, as well as the principle that they have a duty of care to people on their sites.

As my hon. Friend says, there is clearly an awful lot to do to get to where we need to be. If we step back from this whole question, the technology that has brought about social media companies is still relatively new; it is only 15 or 20 years old. Around the world, the way in which society has responded to it has not yet matured. The good social media companies now get the fact that they have such an impact on society that a regulatory framework is necessary, and in fact have welcomed the White Paper that we introduced as an approach that could be replicated around the world. My hon. Friend is quite right that, once one country or jurisdiction gets this right, it will be taken as a model elsewhere, so that, ultimately, the power of this amazing new way in which we communicate—by God, Mr Speaker, in this House we all use it—can be for the good, and we can mitigate all the downsides that come with it.

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, but for too long internet companies have been too slow to protect children from the risks of suicide and other harms such as online hate and the threat of far-right and religious extremists and terrorists. He will be aware that, internationally, companies such as Facebook have fallen very short and were accused by the United Nations of playing a “determining role” in the genocide in Burma. This is a massive problem, and it is right that Britain should lead the way. Is he speaking to his counterparts in other Departments? Will he make sure that the legislation actually ensures that companies are responsible for content, as well as ensuring that there are strong, large fines if they continue to fail?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We have proposed fines as called for by the hon. Lady, and of course this is a cross-Government effort. My responsibilities are the health impacts, but technology has an impact right across the board, including on the quality of debate in our democracy, which is a Cabinet Office issue, and with regard to terrorism content, which is a Home Office issue. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport leads across the board and the Prime Minister herself has led global debates on this. The hon. Lady is quite right to point out that there is a broad range of impacts, and we work together to tackle them.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean Conservative, Redditch

The shadow Secretary of State referred to the proliferation of pro-anorexia content online. Is the Secretary of State aware that tech giant, Amazon, sells books under the category of “pro-ana”, which purports to show anorexia as a healthy lifestyle? Does he share my revulsion that those books are available online, and will he call on Amazon to take this content down immediately? Will he look at whether tech giants such as Amazon can be brought into the remit of the Online Harms White Paper?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

I will absolutely look at the matter raised by my hon. Friend, as it is alarming and distressing to hear about it. Amazon sells physical goods for the most part and surely has a duty of care to those who buy them, in the same way that a shop has a responsibility for what it sells. My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will follow up. I will write to her with more details.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I, too, welcome the statement by the Secretary of State, not least because I survived measles as a very small child and my family talked for a long time about how worrying and scary it was. On the other issue, as well as taking action against the social media companies, the long-term NHS plan talks about an increase in proportionate spending on child and adult mental health services. What will he do about that? What will the proportion be? I ask because it is crucial to fighting this problem.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that there will be an increased spend on mental health services across England—a £2.3 billion increase. It is the fastest-growing area of spend in the long-term plan. We are investing £33.9 billion in the NHS in cash terms, and the fastest proportionate rise in spend is in mental health services. That is an important part of this, although there is an awful lot that the social media companies can do to reduce the demands on those services by reducing the negative impact on mental health. The whole House can agree that the hon. Lady being alive and here, having survived measles, is another reason why it is important to get this right. It would have been the House’s loss had the measles won.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

The drop in vaccination rates is not only an annual problem but a cumulative problem, as more and more young people in society are not immunised against these childhood diseases. Can I urge my right hon. Friend not only to undertake a social media campaign to encourage parents and children to take up the vaccinations, but to target the messages so that people know where they can go to get them, how they can do it and the importance medically of doing so?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

My hon. Friend is exactly right; in fact, that work is under way. I should have mentioned in response to the shadow Secretary of State that Public Health England has a targeted programme of positive information. We can use data and social media better to target messages at those who need them in exactly the way that he proposes. That work is in hand.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the consultation. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and the suicide prevention Minister for taking part in the launch of my all-party parliamentary group report on new filters and the impact of social media on young people’s mental health. I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for agreeing to have a meeting with me next week to discuss the content of the report. One thing that is not in the consultation and which has not been mentioned today is the idea of a social media-health alliance bringing together social media companies and other groups—not just groups such as the Samaritans but young people’s groups and social work groups—that can formulate, collate and undertake more research into the impact of social media on young people. Would he consider this idea and even take a lead in forming it, as his Department does with gambling and other compulsive disorders?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

I will certainly consider it and I look forward to talking to the hon. Gentleman about the idea more next week. Dialogue in this area is critical, but we should not only have dialogue; we also need concrete legislative action, but I am grateful for what he has said about the work that has been done. I am glad that he is also working in this area, and I look forward to discussing it with him more.

Photo of Mike Wood Mike Wood Conservative, Dudley South

Three million of the four million videos taken down by YouTube in the last six months were identified and removed by artificial intelligence. What greater role does the Secretary of State see for technological development in helping to reduce online harm and keep people safe online?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Artificial intelligence clearly has a role in identifying material that needs to be removed in the same way that it is now being used to remove terrorist content. We are talking to companies that may be able to do this, but we also need to identify what material should be taken down and what should be left up. Defining that boundary is critical to training artificial intelligence to do its job, hence the importance of the decision to ask the Samaritans to do the work of identifying the boundary so that we can train artificial intelligence to identify what needs to be taken down.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Thank you, Mr Speaker. My tactic of wearing a dress so big I can hide a colleague behind it is working.

Will the Secretary of State look at the harm that celebrity endorsements on social media can do to young people? The Empowered Woman project in Scotland highlighted how Marnie Simpson of “Geordie Shore” had been plugging Thermosyn diet pills, which are marketed as “skinny caffeine”. When I asked the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about that, he said that the UK Government were looking at

“user-generated content, not necessarily commercial activities”—[Official Report, 8 April 2019;
Vol. 658, c. 73.]

Celebrity endorsement veers into the commercial area, however, and has a very significant effect on young people in terms of body image and eating disorders.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

My colleague the suicide prevention Minister is looking at this area, particularly endorsements of cosmetics, and I am sure she would be very happy to talk to the hon. Lady.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

My generation growing up might have feared bullying in the playground, but largely home was a refuge and place of safety. The problem for the current generation is that they can find themselves being bullied 24/7 because of social media. It is little wonder that when I contacted Twitter after seeing some rather libellous material it told me that in its view it was not abusive, even though it was against the law in this country. Does the Secretary of State agree that until social media companies understand that they have to operate under the norms and laws of this country, and not just abide by Californian norms, they will never reform?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

My hon. Friend puts it exactly right. That is what the duty of care is all about. The argument—we hear it less and less, to be honest—that these are international companies and so will abide by somebody else’s laws, thanks very much, is wrong and out of date, as the Online Harms White Paper makes clear. We must establish a proper enforcement mechanism to ensure that it is the rules that this House sets—occasionally amended by the other place—that define the law of the land and that we do not have a wild west. This action to protect people’s health is just one part of the response needed to make the internet safe, especially for children.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

Thank you for calling me so early, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] It couldn’t be any worse.

My son contracted measles one month before he was due to receive his MMR vaccine because of a dip in numbers being vaccinated, so I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement about tackling anti-vaccination posts on social media. Last year, the Select Committee on Science and Technology carried out an inquiry into the impact of social media on young people’s health, and one of the statistics presented to us was quite disturbing: 50% of young people between the ages of 11 and 16 had seen pornographic images, and many of them had stumbled across them. When I spoke to my 11-year-old daughter, she confirmed that she had seen images that upset her but had been too scared to speak to me about it. What is the Secretary of State doing to alert parents to the dangers of social media and to give them guidance on how to speak to their children and identify when they might have seen things online that have upset them?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Mr Speaker, that question was so good it is only a pity it was not asked earlier in our exchanges.

I want to address two important points. First, the hon. Lady’s son is a case in point of how, if parents do not vaccinate, they endanger not only their own children but other people’s. It is because of a failure to vaccinate that these diseases still exist, and it is children who are too young to be vaccinated who are at risk. She has made the case more powerfully than anybody for the importance of vaccinating and keeping vaccination rates up, and I am grateful to her for sharing that personal experience. On the second point, she is quite right that we all have a responsibility to act, and act we will.

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney

It is a privilege to have the last word.

The whole House is concerned about the effect that the internet can have on young people’s mental health, and I welcome the action that the Secretary of State is taking. Is there truth and accuracy in the reports that Wikipedia did not attend yesterday’s summit? If so, does he share my disappointment, and does he feel that Wikipedia must take this issue seriously and engage with it?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Unfortunately, those reports are true. I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment that Wikipedia did not attend either of the two summits, despite having been invited. At yesterday’s summit, we agreed that we would get in touch with Wikipedia in robust terms, because it is not acceptable for it to shirk its social responsibilities either.

If I may say so, I think that the statement and the responses to it have shown that there is unanimity in the House. Every speaker has mentioned the need to tackle anti-vaccination misinformation and the social media organisations’ responsibility and duty of care in relation to the health—mental and otherwise—of people on their platforms. The House speaks with one voice, and the social media companies, and the internet companies that have not yet engaged should listen.