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Social Networks Don't Kill Teenagers, Bullies Do

09/08/2013 13:35 BST | Updated 08/10/2013 10:12 BST
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In the maelstrom of reactions to Hannah Smith's tragic suicide, hysteria and reactionary anger have reigned over common sense and constructive thinking. Hannah Smith tragically took her life after consistent bullying on Ask. Fm, a site which quite simply allows account holders to invite anonymous questions which they can then respond to. Could Ask.fm have done more to minimise the risk to Hannah? Absolutely. Should Ask. Fm be boycotted or shut down? Absolutely not. Ask.fm did not send Hannah horrendous questions which drove her to depression and suicide. Bullies and trolls did.

David Cameron has said that internet users need to boycott 'vile' websites which allow cyber bullying, a statement which shows just how wrong the analysis of the issue is. You can use any website to cyber bully if you should so choose. Facebook, twitter, Ask.fm, myspace, bebo, instagram, reddit, tumblr. In fact any website which allows you to write a comment fulfils this brief. They all do the same thing. Connect people by allowing you to share your life and others to share their opinions. It is not the website which it is at fault.

The founders said that the site doesn't condone bullying of any kind, a statement which was quickly scorned by articles decrying the website as the newest scourge of adolescence. But the site doesn't condone bullying of any kind. It is morally neutral. It can be used as easily to build up someone's self-esteem ('Why are you so wonderful?') as it can do destroy it ('Why are you so awful?') A form of social networking which, in essence, has one simple objective. To allow people to ask and respond to anonymous questions.

By all means social networks are off the hook entirely. When crimes are being committed social networks need to make it as easy as possible for the police to be informed and for criminals to be properly charged and convicted for their behavior. Boycotting or restricting Ask.fm will do precisely nothing other than give a false sense of a tragic death being avenged. Criminally charging bullies and trolls whilst educating teenagers about the need for caution and the potential criminal consequences of their misguided words will.

The focus needs to be on how social networks are obligated to help bring criminals to justice not on castigating social networks for their very existence. It is also important to remember however that there is a distinction between criminal behaviour and bullying. Bullying is horrendous and schools, parents and young people alike should do all that is within our power to stop it. But it is not necessarily criminal or actionable. Threats, inciting hatred, racism and the plethora of other sources of hate are in the purview of the police. Spiteful comments, plentiful, cruel and unbearable as they may be, do not a conviction make.

There is a greyer area of what exactly happens regarding online bullying. What do we define as bullying? Online there is no physical signal to show that behaviour is becoming aggressive nor private property that mustn't be breached. In the world of online communication words are the only weapons. In an ideal world there would be no malicious taunting or rampant misogyny masquerading as offensive 'humour.' But this is not an ideal world. If you sign up to a social network you agree to allow others to impart their opinions and their thoughts. Moderators are a valuable tool but the extent to which they can essentially censor before a social network is no longer a free space for communication is questionable. If every account was actually closed when a cruel, malicious or offensive remark is made there would be few accounts remaining. Report abuse buttons are simultaneously helpful and pointless. They may flag up truly actionable abuse. They may also simply represent unease with someone else's behavior which doesn't warrant an account suspension or reportage to the police. The focus needs to move from social networks, which will constantly spring up and attract impressionable young people, to the potential for education which we ourselves have to carry out.

We can improve the current situation and hopefully avoid future recurrences of teen suicides such as Hannah's. Firstly parents need to educate themselves. It is not enough to either ban your child. Restricting a child's access to social networking is, in this day and age, akin to lobbing a matchstick into the channel tunnel and expecting it to stop traffic. Parents need to educate their children about how to use social networks wisely and what to do when very real, very adult things start happening in a virtual universe to a child. The first stage is parents learning everything they can about how social networks work, what they're used for and by whom.

Schools also need to wake up to the fact that there is a strong need for that half hour PSHE lesson each week to include one of the most significant parts of a school pupils life. Making it clear to children that they can report online abuse to teachers, parents and if necessary the police, is vital. Caution needs to be encouraged. Children need to know what they are signing themselves up for and what other people can and can't do online.

Back in the depths of my adolescence there was a brief fad for an Ask.fm syle app on, the now dead and gone, bebo. Users were invited to anonymously ask questions and you would respond. I only ever had the one question. 'Why are you a geek?' some delightful teen demanded. My reaction was to respond, 'Why are so stupid?' (forgive the lack of wit, I was fourteen) swiftly delete the app and promptly while away two hours incredulously bitching about my virtual nemesis to my best friend. I wish that this was the response of all teenagers to online abuse but clearly it is not. The desire to respond, defend yourself and not just slink away is a powerful one. The old adage of 'sticks and stones' is of scant comfort to a child, because a thirteen year old is a child no matter how much they might protest, who simply feels wronged, hurt and indignant.