WHO urged to take action on social media companies to protect young people’s health, among other NGO calls

Wide-ranging benefits of digital technologies risk being outweighed by human rights abuses

In a letter to World Health Organisation (WHO) Director General Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, leading health and rights NGOs and academics warn that, despite the benefits digital technologies offer for people’s health, the rise in young adults seeking health information on unregulated social media sites has also resulted in both online and offline harm, including misdiagnosis, sexual harassment, bullying, and extortion.

The letter, coordinated by the Digital Health and Rights Project, calls for the WHO to work with relevant partners, including UNAIDS and UNDP, to champion human rights norms and standards in the digital age. In doing so, it says the WHO must work with countries to urgently put regulations in place to prevent the use of digital technologies from causing harm, and to hold companies accountable for upholding human rights.

The intervention follows the release of a new report, Digital Health and Rights of Young Adults in Ghana, Kenya and Vietnam, the first in global digital health to use transnational participatory action research; drawing on qualitative research with 174 young people and 33 experts in all three countries.

The report documents important positive impacts of digital health for young people. These include the ability to avoid stigma in in-person clinic visits, empowerment in having access to information, and the building of online communities for peer support and exchange on sensitive health topics.

What the report also reveals is that where spaces are left unregulated or tools are misused, then serious harms can occur. This particularly true for women, sex workers, members of the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalised and vulnerable populations. In Ghana, where an anti-homosexuality bill has been tabled, gay men and other men who have sex with men said that their chat groups for HIV prevention work, the only space where they are currently able to meet, are at a constant risk of infiltration by homophobic individuals or groups. In several cases, they said, they or peers were lured into ambushes that led to beating, extortion, or sexual violence.

Such examples are cause for ‘robust regulations’ that ‘hold businesses accountable for upholding human rights of young people’, say NGOs and academics.

Tabitha Ha, Advocacy Manager at STOPAIDS, said:

“The contents of this report really highlight the importance of strong regulation of social media spaces. Social media companies themselves can’t be trusted to effectively regulate their own content, we’ve seen this with Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter; scrapping the human rights team and a rise in racist and homophobic abuse on the platform.

We need internationally binding regulations for companies to respect rights and protect health.”

Dr. Sara Meg Davis, Senior Researcher at the Digital Health and Rights Project, said:

“There are clear benefits to the rise in digital health technology, with many young people more easily accessing health information and peer support.

However, social media is not mentioned in the World Health Organisation’s Global Strategy on Digital Health, and some young adults are telling us that seeking out health information on such platforms has negatively impacted their mental and even physical health. 

To truly harness all the potential benefits of digital health we need global health agencies, national governments, and private companies to work together to ensure effective regulation of spaces, accountability, transparency, and safety. In doing so, they should act in consultation with young people, affected communities and civil society.”

Nerima Were, Deputy Executive Director of KELIN Kenya, said:

“It is shocking to think that many young adults, often concerned about their health, are setting out to use social media and apps to find information online to help themselves, only to come to harm.

Empowering young people is a good starting point but we need governments, the UN, and private businesses to step up and ensure people’s health and human rights are protected. The World Health Organisation can and should play a leading role in coordinating such efforts.”


Notes to editor: 

  • The Digital Health and Rights Project, hosted at the Graduate Institute, is a consortium of anthropologists, social scientists, human rights lawyers, and global networks of civil society activists working together to develop and strengthen international norms, standards and regulations to protect health and human rights in the digital era.
  • Findings from the report Digital Health and Rights of Young Adults in Ghana, Kenya and Vietnam will be presented in an online webinar on 22nd November. Registration is here.

STOPAIDS is a UK-based HIV, health and rights network. We draw on our 35-year experience working on the HIV response to support UK and global movements to challenge systemic barriers and inequalities so that we can end AIDS and support people around the world to realise their right to good health and wellbeing.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact: jake@stopaids.org.uk or on +447887348161