How to prevent social networks from damaging the well-being of young people?
Amid a plethora of writings on the impact of social media on young people, a vital issue has surfaced.
In “The Guardian view on mental health online: protect the vulnerable” (28 January 2019), the newspaper publicises the plight of depressed teens whose vulnerability is increased by insensitive or damaging material online. The article challenges the complacency of social media companies, urging governments to take action to hold them responsible:
“The extreme concentration of power on the social internet in the hands of three or four companies means that governments have a target for their pressure. If Facebook (which owns WhatsApp and Instagram), Google (which owns YouTube), Twitter, and Pinterest all decide to ban some content it will not disappear but it will become very much harder to find, and their algorithms could be tweaked so as not to serve it.”
Algorithms enable the social media giants to identify vulnerable users not just by age, but also by their interests: among the categories Google or Facebook offer to advertisers are “depression”, “panic and anxiety”, “eating disorders”, and “sexual health”. It seems a clear breach of privacy to make this information available to unscrupulous manipulators, let alone for them to be able to sidestep any consequences.
“If we allow internet companies to collect and refine this data in the first place, they cannot be allowed to escape the responsibilities that their knowledge brings with it. Teenagers live as much of their social lives online now as they do at school. If a school were to have an outbreak of suicides, we would question what it had done or left undone that might have led to this. The same standards should apply to the social media giants.”
In a similar story carried by the Irish Times – “M50 horror: Social media giants should be held accountable for removing gruesome images online, warns cyber-psychologist” (27 January 2019) – Professor Mary Aiken is quoted as saying that little or nothing has been done to address the problem and that the availability of extreme and violent content online has somewhat normalised the viewing and sharing of this material.
Social networking via the Internet has been around since 1997 and has evolved from computers to mobile telephony with its estimated 2.77 billion users worldwide in 2019. Twenty-two years on, it is a scandal that the industry remains unregulated.