Reading the headlines today my heart sank at the death of Hannah Smith apparently driven to her premature death by bullying from individuals on ASK.FM a somewhat disreputable flavour of social media site that few will have heard of until now. Yet another on the lengthening list of deaths that would still be alive BUT for the lack of self-regulation or otherwise of Social Media, there is even a hit parade of the 13 Craziest Deaths Caused by Social Media.
For all the good that Social Media has the potential to deliver its failure to demonstrate REAL responsibility, in the face of shareholder pressures for value creation, is going to be its downfall. Politicians and regulators are like rabbits the Social Media headlights and hardly off the starting line to the cold reality of this phenomena.
My sadness at this latest news resonated with a frustration I got reading a Times 2 special article ‘Would you let them go on Facebook’ last week August 1st on the theme by Rachel Carlyle (online version titled ‘Is it OK to monitor your child’s Facebook?‘). It was built around David Cameron’s procrastination over his own children’s prospects with Facebook and his new found motivation to address the accessibility of pornography online. Cameron was quoted as saying ‘that watching his children enter the digital world was one of the reasons that he was moved to take action’, the sad thing is it should not take a politicians own self-interests to stimulate action to protect children at large. The ignorance and blinkered starry eyed attitude to Social Media that permeated the article did not help its credibility, it completely missed the point. Social Media is proving to be a lethal weapon in the hands of our children, and we as adults are responsible for standing by and doing little as Hannah Smith’s demise attests. If we take the theme in the Times and extend the lethal weapon metaphor the author would have us believe all is OK, in fact insistent that it is an unavoidable reality, that we can safely give our children access to harmful weapons as long as we monitor them! I despair at some people’s judgment, or maybe I have lost the plot?
Remember Hungerford, Dunblane? Where is the same social response to the higher body count of Social Media?
What makes this more distressing is the case of Hanna Smith is not the first of its kind and will not be the last. I say this with a mournful certainty, as you read this article PAUSE. Please just look around at the people you can see, or even reflect on your own children, it could be one of them, the next victim. What is crystal clear is this is avoidable. Whilst those directly responsible for taunting Miss Smith were unquestionably at the pointed end of this act, metaphorically wielding the gun, society’s acceptance of Social Media’s distortion of our social realities makes us ALL responsible for tolerating said availability of harmful weapons. Who said it was safe for a 14 year old to engage in such company, albeit virtual? Society has some traditional boundaries set at 16 and 18 (even 21 in some parts of the world) to protect children from exposure or gain access to the likes of alcohol, cigarettes, guns, driving, voting, sex, entry into a Public House/Bar/NightClub/strip bar/ public entertainment venues, Credit Cards etc , BUT social Media sites arbitrarily set a new boundary at 13? Based on what evidence?
Evidence aside the Social Media sites lack any motivation to police this arbitrary age limit. Recent surveys revealing that in the absence of responsible policing they are permitting any minor to sign-up. The EUKidsOnline survey revealed that In the UK, 43% of 9 to 12-year-olds answered yes, along with 88% of 13 to 16-year-olds to use of such social media sites, with the majority using multiple such sites.
A frightening hidden fact revealed by a Microsoft and university researchers study indicates that 1 in 5 parents admitted they are aware if not actually have helped their under 13 year old kids set up accounts that breach age limits. These parents seem incapable of rationalising the danger of their actions, in digital terms it is tantamount to child abuse, not just turning a blind eye to young children being exposed to an unregulated adult audience but assisting in the act in many cases. What mother or father would take their 8, 10 or even 13 year old into the backstreets of a City and leave them their to their own devices, unsupervised at the mercy of any predator, few I would home to guess. So why is this behaviour acceptable in a Virtual Space where young minds in their beautiful innocence are so readily taken advantage of manipulated distorted?
For Miss Smith was not an adult, she was a 14 year old girl, only just on the on-ramp into what should have been an exciting phase of her life, finding and establishing those social boundaries that we all rely on as independent adults. Until such time our children are very much in a state of dependence. Dependence on us their parents, god-parents, immediate wider family and close community, to nurse and guide them in a safe and secure environment. Only gradually over their years of innocence opening up that environment, as our children refine their social skills and awareness, providing a continued safety-net and privacy zone for safe experimentation and expression in the knowledge that those lessons will not be held against them as they cross that final line as adults.
Social Media has ridden roughshod over this time honoured safety valve our children used to enjoy, and some still do, but increasingly a minority. No longer do they enter adult hood with a clean slate, they enter it burdened down with a timeline advertising their trials, tribulations and adolescent discretions etched across blog, tweets and images posted online never to be clawed back. I have written at length on the past on the subject of Social Media entities abuse of personal data ‘Digital Enslavement‘ and ‘Click through to Hell’ amongst others.
Time for a reality check if we are to prevent further troubling headlines.
Whenever there has been a new wave of innovation there have always been practices and even what were regarded as legitimate business appearing to capitalise on the opportunities and new business models. Historically the speed of these innovations has allowed society to manage and rein in malpractice and establish a regulatory environment that reflects a controlled adaptation of social norms to the new post innovation state. The internet and latterly what is coined as Social Media in its various guises has produce a phenomena that has outpaced societies ability to adapt in its traditional regulatory manner and that has left our Politically Correct Politicians playing a back game. The sad reality being Politicians by their nature are largely spineless (with a few exceptions) when it comes to standing up in the face of criticism, especially when in the face of a force mega $$’s lobbying storm.
This lack of appetite to rein these organisations in is nothing new. In the US The Federal Trade Commission has the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires website operators and online service providers to get the consent of parents before collecting personal information from children younger than 13. But it seems some parents just don’t care and despite the good intent of such regulation it is being circumvented as the online industry comes up with new tactics to gather data to sell advertising and continues to ride roughshod over child welfare in their voracious appetite for data.
The fines that are levied are poultry to these Social Media organisations, and the headlines sadly counterproductive, often building notoriety that bolsters subscribers. What are $50,000 fines as with W3 Innovations for collecting information about children and the record of $3 million from a division of Disney of all companies, the online game developer Playdom for violations? They are a blip in the balance sheet for these multi-million dollar IPO’s such as Facebook and Google etc. And are shareholders in these companies concerned about their moral positions, someone has to wake these big brands up to THEIR moral responsibilities even if our regulators will not. So if you would not invest in a Tobacco company and have in one of these Social Media entities ask yourself why? The body count for the Tobacco industry may be higher, well yes it’s been around longer, and let’s face it they are consenting ADULTS, Social Media entities are just as responsible for their market offering.
There is one question that needs to be asked, how Politicians condone the continued access to these environments for under-aged individuals? There is NO regulation, no policing of their practices and no respect of personally identifiable information. Maybe start here ‘Social Media Corporatocracy – Self-Regulate or Be Damned‘.
We are I believe at an event horizon in this wave of new innovation where social media is falling into the category of notoriety on the verge of rouge business, desperately requiring some form of licensing and controlling if it is to mature and gain what could be a valued place in our social fabric with institutional grade credibility. Something it will not achieve over the bodies of some of our children.
As projections abound of Digital viewing time overtaking traditional TV in the US this year perhaps those left behind are not all that lucky. A London School of Economics study indicates that Social Media is having unforeseen effects on the development of young children’s minds. Couple this with the South Korean epidemic that is coining a new syndrome ‘Digital Dementia’ our lack of oversight of our children could be shaping a very different and alien future existence for them, one of short term memories and ‘tethered’ digital dependency. But that is a broader spectrum debate, one for my next blog perhaps …. if I remember…..