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Tech companies must step up in fight against cyberbullying

4 min read

The debate on young people’s mental health needs to focus on prevention as well as cure. Social media firms can do more to tackle this problem, writes Alex Chalk

My debate this Monday on cyberbullying coincides with yet another survey reporting a decline in young people’s mental health. Recently published research by the Prince’s Trust suggested that young people’s wellbeing has fallen over the last twelve months and is at its lowest level since the study was first commissioned in 2009.

Nor is this just a British phenomenon. A recent article by NBC in the US, citing research from John Hopkins University, referred to an “acute health crisis happening among members of the youngest generation of Americans, with critical implications for the country’s future.” Similar data is emerging from France and Germany.

What’s more, this phenomenon doesn’t feel like a temporary spike. It’s more of a lasting surge.

And yet the debate so often seems to focus exclusively on cure – on what is being done to meet this new normal. Cure is critically important of course. But we need to focus with similar energy on prevention too. Why is this surge happening in the first place? How can we stop it taking root?

And while there appears to be a correlation between the rise of social media and the decline in adolescent mental health, I wanted to look at whether there was causation too. That’s why I teamed up with the Children’s Society and Young Minds charities to set up a cross-party inquiry to consider this, taking evidence from over 1,000 young people.

The report focused on one aspect of social media: cyberbullying. Evidence from young people suggested that this was the single biggest risk factor to mental health associated with social media use. It can be utterly devastating – relentless and inescapable – and we heard harrowing evidence of young people taken to the very edge of despair, with its extraordinary capacity to amplify torment.

A troubling proportion of young people are affected – 68% of our respondents. As for its impact, the medical evidence showed that its impact can last into adulthood, with what one expert called “lasting consequences on the adolescent brain”.

But perhaps most strikingly of all, a staggering 83% of young people told our inquiry that social media companies should do more to tackle this problem. Young people felt that at present the onus is very much on the victim to act – to block or delete. Reporting all too often feels like shouting into an empty room, and there is a perceived lack of consequences for those who engage in bullying behaviour online, in a way that is different from real life.

And although there is some evidence from some platforms of temporary sanctions for cyberbullies, to nudge them back to good behaviour, they are very much the exception. This message is starting to get through. In his New Year 2018 message Mark Zuckerberg vowed to “fix” Facebook. One of the priorities he highlighted was “protecting our community from abuse and hate”. He admitted that enforcement of house policies was failing.

We concluded he’s right. Despite evidence that the larger companies may be taking this more seriously, with signposting, resource hubs and so on it is difficult to avoid the overall impression measures are largely tokenistic – slow and inadequate.

And because there is so little transparency about the number of reports and the nature of the response it is in effect impossible to determine whether resources allocated bear any relation to the scale of the problem. The companies continue essentially to mark their own homework.

This debate is intended to shine a light on this issue, and play a small part in pushing prevention up the political agenda.   

Alex Chalk is Conservative MP for Cheltenham. His adjournment debate is on Monday 16 April



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