I was really distressed to read about the tragic suicide of Molly Russell: The ‘caring soul’ who died after exploring her depression on Instagram.
Suicide is now the leading cause of death for young people under 20 and levels of self-harm are rising among teenage girls in particular.
I was interviewed on BBC Radio Oxford recently about what can be done. There’s not a quick fix as it’s a complex problem.
But none of us from tech companies to parents can afford to put our heads in the sand and in my opinion tech companies need to be MADE more accountable.
It’s no use the UK boss of Instagram saying that they have procedures and legislation in place while being shown horrific images of young teenagers self-harming on the BBC 6 o’clock News. Families need action, protection and answers quickly.
If they have spent years working out sophisticated marketing & sales technology using algorithms surely, they can put their minds to solutions around protecting children and young people with those algorithms.
While many say it is impossible to “police the internet” there must be a better and safer way to control what we expose young people to and to ensure more support is offered to those looking for answers online.
I fear that tech companies have already shown they can’t be trusted to police this themselves and I certainly feel violated & duped by tech firms such as Facebook, as they have clearly hacked all my personal information to influence elections and do as they please. So, whilst I’m not a fan of banning anything in this instance legislation may well be needed.
You, like me, may not have been aware that even Pinterest, allows users to save images in a virtual scrapbook, hosting images of self-harm wounds, fists clasping white pills, and macabre mottos which can be viewed by children aged 13 and over.
Just a few days ago Facebook announced that it is looking to consolidate its Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp function under one product. Instagram has been a part of Facebook’s family since 2012 when it was acquired for approximately US$1 billion in cash. So, you can see what governments are up against if they decide to instil fines.
In my opinion, with the influence and reach of monolithic companies, comes monolithic responsibilities but to date I don’t feel in safe hands.
So, what can we do?
Of course, you are probably aware of parent-friendly routers you can buy, and software you can use, to limit your child’s access to the internet. But it’s more important to create a mental framework that helps keep your kids safe—and teaches them to protect themselves.
Different age groups require different amounts of supervision even within a specific age, different children have different inclinations, and with them different needs.
The challenge for us as parents is that we raise our kids & ‘talk & teach’ them about all sorts of things, and then one day we let them go out and about on their own off to buy something locally but we have no idea what they’re going to see between our house and the local shop. All we can do is just hope & pray that we’ve raised them in a way that they can deal with whatever is out there. So, we need to talk about what they might discover online & know what to do if they don’t like what they see.
It’s a murky, muddy disturbing world online & whilst there are safeguards in place like ‘The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule’, established in 1998, that created safeguards to keep children off social media under the age of 13. Yet, millions of children under 13 have found their way onto Facebook anyway, often with parental consent! (The more cynical me has noted Facebook has recently attempted to skirt that with a version of Messenger aimed at children 6 and older.)
One step you can take is to be confident enough to be your child’s parent, not their friend and lead by example by not allowing your child to join Facebook if they are under 13.
They may whine and say ‘Well, everyone at school is on it’ but that’s not your concern. Lying to get on a social platform is a bad example to set to start with. It creates the atmosphere of secrecy straight away which is a dangerous precedent.
Don’t give in!
Why young people are overwhelmed by their strong emotions.
The teenage years are full of strong emotions, hormones, angst and self-searching.
There are many reasons why young people may start to self-harm, feel suicidal or feel overwhelmed by their very strong emotions. Family reasons, such as not getting on with other family members, bullying at school, anxiety over exam pressure or a family divorce may be the trigger. Young people may have personal problems to do with sexuality, race, culture or religion, or they may suffer from low self-esteem and feelings of isolation. Bereavement, current or previous experience of abuse in childhood can all lead to self-harm.
Spotting the signs
Being connected, engaged and positively involved in your child’s life can act as a buffer to these strong overwhelming feelings.
Eating together, walking the dog and hanging out together regularly watching a film, or playing a board game keeps you involved and aware of what’s going on in your child’s life & are only some of the things you can do as parent.
It also helps to be informed about self-harm, anxiety, signs of depression and mental health issues.
There are two types of self-harm: physical and emotional, and young people will go to great lengths to hide them or explain them away.
The signs to look for with physical self-harm are cuts, bruises, burns and bald patches from hair pulling. Young people are likely to cover themselves up in long-sleeved clothes and hats to hide the signs.
The signs of emotional self-harm are a lot more difficult to spot – and it shouldn’t be assumed that a young person is self-harming purely on this basis. If you spot these in addition to the physical signs there may be cause for concern. The emotional signs include: depression, tearfulness and low motivation, unusual eating habits, sudden weight loss or gain, low self-esteem and drinking or taking drugs.
Self-harm can start at a very young age, i.e. seven years old or more commonly between the ages of 12 and 15 years old.
Experts say self-harm behaviour normally end within five years of starting, however, for some, it can last into adulthood. However, if you are at all worried, trust your intuition and seek professional help & advice from your doctor. Don’t allow your doubts to be dismissed by others.
What can parents do.
Here are just a few ways you can protect your children online, from using filters to block explicit content, setting up your kids’ tech devices with safety settings, to using apps to limit the amount of time your child spends online, to having frank conversations about the dangers and ‘Talking & Teaching’ them & showing them the News headlines of the suicide of Molly Russell if it’s age appropriate to do so with your kids – show them that you’re not just being an old ‘fuddy duddy’ – that this is happening in real life and they need to be made aware of it so they can make better decisions for themselves.
As parents I think you need to:
Learn about it
Talk about it
Deal with it
Lots of parents feel powerless in the face of social media. But we are not powerless.
It’s about balance not banning your children from technology. The internet also affords opportunities to learn, to socialise & to create. Being realistic at this point trying to keep your kids off it entirely would be impossible. They’re going to get online. Your job is to help them make good choices when they get there.
I truly hope this tragic event for the Russell family is a turning point for tech companies to face up to their moral responsibility to work together with governments, organisations and families to prevent such tragedies from happening again.
As Ged Flynn, from the suicide prevention charity Papyrus, said: ‘Suicide is not a hashtag. It is an unimaginable, devastating tragedy.
UKSIC’s ‘Parents’ Guide to Technology ‘has lots of helpful information for parents about smartphones, tablets, and gaming devices.
Parent Zone the Experts in Digital Family Life
Online Safety from NSPCC
This is a helpful article from WIRED