NHS head urges government to consider mental health levy on social media firms

Simon Stevens points to similar taxes imposed in industries such as gambling

Social media firms should pay a levy to help fund treatment for a rise in mental health problems that they are responsible for, the head of the NHS has said.

Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, said companies such as Facebook and Twitter should contribute as levels of anxiety, distress and depression among children and teenagers increase rapidly.

Stevens said ministers should look at taxing social media giants in order to “help stem the tide of mental ill-health” or “at least help pick up the pieces”.

He pointed to the 0.1% levied on gambling firms’ profits and that imposed on the banking industry following the financial crash – which raised around £2bn a year – as being of a similar principle.

Speaking at the Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit in London, he said: “Take social media, I think we’ve now got enough evidence and research into the impact of social media on mental health. Although it’s not fully developed, there’s widespread acceptance that overuse of these platforms can have a detrimental effect on children and young people.”

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Stevens added: “Mental health services, particularly for young people, are reporting an increased number of admissions linked to use of social media and some companies themselves are starting to recognise this. In other industries where there are adverse consequences from commercial activities, each service contributes a proportion of its turnover to an organisation or cause intended to mitigate adverse side-effects.”

Dame Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer, is currently reviewing the impact of technology on children and whether ministers should cap recommended screen times.

Stevens added: “As evidence in this country emerges – and the chief medical officer is currently looking at what we know and the impact of social media – we need to consider the links between health and technology for better, in many cases, but also for worse. And, under these circumstances, discuss whether the equivalent of a mental health levy would be a proportionate response, both in terms of changing behaviour on the part of the companies involved and in terms of providing a funding stream for the expanded services we all want to see.”

The comments were made on World Mental Health Day, which saw the prime minister Theresa May appoint a new minister for suicide prevention and a pledge for more support in schools, such as mental health support teams and offering help in measuring students’ health.

Sam Trendall

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