Jeremy Hunt wants to minimise kids' use of social media. Good luck with that

Matthew Norman
Hunt intends to introduce a 'recommended healthy screen time' for children, and threatens to legislate: Getty

The new Avengers movie hits the cinemas this week. But looking forward to the next one after Infinity War, perhaps Marvel could find a place on the team for Jeremy Hunt.

He may not strike the naked eye as a superhero. Then again, none of them does (Thor excepted) – and like his potential future colleagues, our health secretary has a range of superpowers.

Admittedly the only one we know about is his indestructibility. Where mortal politicians are destroyed by the kind of scandal and incompetence that have defined his career – colluding with the Murdochs as media secretary during their bid to take complete ownership of Sky and picking an absurd fight with NHS staff in his current post – Hunt survives.

One minute he’s morosely lolling into No 10, without his NHS badge, to be ended by the newly installed Theresa May. Twenty later, badge restored to lapel, he’s bounding out like Tigger. No one knows how he did that. Perhaps those powers include an ability to bend minds with his magic shield of ameliorative blandness?

But surviving isn’t enough for Hunt, who is telling people in strictest confidence that, so far as succeeding May, he’s back in the game. Laughable as this must sound, he may be right.

Ask a supposed expert who’d take over if she resigned tomorrow, and you’ll get a list of those who probably wouldn’t.

Boris? Be serious. Amber Rudd? After Windrush? Michael Gove? Too Brexity, too many enemies. David Davis? Too Brexity, thick and old. Jacob Rees-Mogg? See Boris, above.

When eventually you reach Hunt, the name inspires a reflective “Hmm, stranger things and all that. He’s awfully good at sounding reasonable on Radio 4's Today. If they wanted for a compromise candidate...”

Buoyed by this resurgence, Hunt is now taking on a mightier foe than even the junior doctors. Hunt plans, or says he does, to tackle the scourge of young people spending so much time on the internet.

He intends to introduce a “recommended healthy screen time” for children, and threatens to legislate if the goliaths of social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, the other usual suspects – won’t play ball.

His real motivation isn’t clear. Nominally, what with being health secretary, he is worried about the mental health implications. Being father to three small kids, he may have personal concerns about the impact on unformed synapses of untold hours spent staring at screens, and flooding the brain with potent psychochemicals.

One of the more chilling articles of the last decade revealed how many top Silicon Valley executives send their offspring to a Californian school without a single computer, where leisure activities involve playing outdoors. Nor will these masters and mistresses of the online universe let their little darlings near a computer at home.

The neuroscience is still in its infancy, and it isn’t understood how online addictiveness might reshape the human mind. But instinct screams that it isn’t healthy for a 15 year old to spend eight unbroken hours staring at a screen, and that there’s something unnerving about a toddler developing dazzling mastery of an operating system before control of its bladder and bowels.

Anyway, in his boldest catchweight contest since he took on Stephen Hawking in a war of words about the NHS, Hunt accuses Facebook et al of “turning a blind eye” to the impact of overexposure.

He couldn’t have stumbled upon a less apt phrase. If recent revelations confirm anything, it’s that these companies turn a blind eye to nothing. Their vision is permanently fixed on users’ activities and how they can be monetised. Unless and until indisputable proof of damage is found, they will do what the tobacco companies did regarding lung cancer for decades. However overwhelming the anecdotal evidence, they will deny any link.

For all that, there is something endearing about Jeremy Hunt trying to menace the titans of technology so soon after Mark Zuckerberg rejected an invitation to testify to a parliamentary committee. Don’t make him angry, is the message. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. The only problem is that you wouldn’t like him when he’s not angry – and if you happen to be Zuckerberg, you wouldn’t notice him when he is.

Hunt’s implied notion of the power balance between the tech giants and the fragile government of an irrelevant little island is so quaintly deluded that you could almost worry about his own grasp of reality.

But only almost. Beneath the affable twit frontage, Hunt runs off calculating software as efficient as any of his rivals. He knows the pointlessness of legislating, even if that were possible, to restrict internet usage. Any seven year old can crack the most sophisticated parental controls, and you’d literally need a taser to prize a teenager’s hands off a smartphone.

One admires the self-interested virtue-signalling as much the survivalist talent and purity of ambition. His is the most laughably unself-aware contribution in this area since Melania Trump vowed to take on cyber bullying without reference to stilling the tiny typing fingers of her husband.

If Hunt truly is worried about the mental health of the young, he might restrict the time spent showboating, and devote it to reversing the collapse of child psychiatric services over which he and his predecessors have presided.

When a 16-year-old schizophrenic has to wait nine months for an appointment, or be shunted 150 miles across the country for a hospital bed, threatening war on Facebook about potential long-term damage is taking the superhero fantasy thing too far.

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