First published in The Telegraph
The digital world is a place of dazzling opportunity for a young person, and endless dangers.
The internet offers so much space for anonymity, so much scope to set foot in spaces out of bounds in the offline world, that it becomes easy to forget: children are still children, online or off. And this isn’t a marginal issue. Children are one third of online users. That’s why it’s time for social media giants – some of the largest firms on earth – to step up to their responsibilities.
As investigations by the Telegraph have shown, we see young people repeatedly falling prey to scams from addictive casino-style gamblingto grooming by sexual predators at remarkable speed.
Some of the most disturbing are the suicide “games” spreading around social media platforms, like the “blue whale challenge”. This dangerous “game” goads vulnerable teens into challenges, which start off as innocuous but steadily escalate into acts of self-harm.
Despite Instagram being aware of the “challenge” being shared across its platform, the “game” has been linked to over a hundred teenage deaths in Russia, with evidence of the game spreading to the UK and India too. The platform warns those typing the search terms with a notification but, ultimately, it allows users to simply dismiss the notification and click through to disturbing images of self-harm.
Elsewhere, social media companies not only turn a blind eye to the harmful effects their platforms can have on children, but actively encourage unhealthy behaviour. An open letter by fifty psychologists in the US earlier this summer accused colleagues of undertaking unethical work for digital platforms. Despite significant evidence that excessive use of social media damages children’s development and puts young people at risk of depression, platforms invest in behavioral tools designed by psychologists to pull children in and keep them hooked.
That is why today Labour is backing the Telegraph’s campaign and proposing a new Duty of Care for social media companies in their delivery of services to children.
After pressure from Labour during the passing of the Data Protection Bill, the Information Commissioner has been given the power to draft and enforce an “Age Appropriate Design Code” outlining the standards that social media giants will be expected to live up to when processing children’s data.
As part of this code we want social media companies held to the highest standard, with a new Duty of Care that requires they take steps to measure harm done to children on their platform, report those measures openly and transparently, and take steps to reduce that harm in the future, in the manner laid out in the work of Carnegie Trust UK.
Second, if we want a system that prioritises keeping these young people safe, we need a penalty regime that hits firms where it hurts: their bottom line. The current law allows for companies in breach of the code to be fined up to £18 million, but with companies like Google boasting more than £90 billion in cash, Labour believes there’s a strong case to push harder.
In sentencing, crimes against children can be used as cause for harsher punishment. If deliberately targeting vulnerable victims is cause for tougher penalties in other parts of the law, why should social media companies that exploit their youngest users’ data not face tougher fines?
Finally, it is clear that we need a watchdog with the strength and power to stand up to the biggest firms on earth. Today the online world is regulated by nine different organisations in the UK. It’s a mishmash. So it’s time for a single regulator to bring together to power to police the online world.
We must act to protect the internet’s most vulnerable browsers. It is crucial that the social media companies our children spend so much of their days on acknowledge their responsibility for children’s mental health, and that the authorities are given the proper mandate to compel any firms that show any reluctance to keep their young users safe.