THE BLOG

Are Trolls Really Responsible for Teenage Suicide and What Can the Websites Do About Them?

14/08/2013 14:42 BST | Updated 13/10/2013 10:12 BST

Everyone's heart goes out to the grieving parents, relatives, friends and teachers of teenagers such as Hannah Smith. Yes abuse that anyone receives online is unacceptable and should not be tolerated, but it is difficult to understand how any individual can take their own lives because of trolls who they do not know and then blame this suicide on the websites.

People who read my blogs know that I like using song lyrics so let's consider this 1980's song by UB40 called Watchdogs, which opening lines are 'You try to close your ears, And you try to close your eyes, But the blasphemies keep coming, Tempting you with lies, Give thanks for your protection, Your watchdogs of the night, Who hold the hungry wolves at bay, And keep them out of sight, out of sight.' Even though this song was written before the internet and social media was available to teenagers, the lyrics come true; who is protecting the teenagers and vulnerable people who use the internet and social media sites?

Wow, let's get controversial now; to commit suicide takes a massive amount of courage and does anyone really subscribe to the idea that messages from ten, twenty or even fifty people who one does not know will drive a person to commit suicide? We all accept that progressing from a child to an adult is very difficult and some teenagers have major complexes with their image, personality, sexuality and many other developmental issues. However, new evidence has shown that many of the messages which the unfortunate Hannah Smith received came from her own IP address; that is her own computer (http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/498450/20130812/askfm-hannah-smith-suicide-abuse-messages-sent.htm).

Current research indicates that 15% of 10-15 year olds are using social media sites (http://www.mintel.com/press-centre/technology-press-centre/social-media-and-teenagers), however the percentage of suicide rates of teenagers is falling in the UK (http://www.samaritans.org/support-us/why-support-samaritans/facts-and-figures-about-suicide) . Yes, we cannot equate the two statistics; so before anyone gets on my back about providing this evidence, I totally agree that further research is required. Having said that we need to consider how parents and the education system may help the small percentage of teenagers who commit suicide due to online bullying. This is an important subject and needs a great deal of research conducted before anyone can understand the reasons between online bullying and suicide or self-harm in teenagers; and for that matter anyone who receives abusive messages on the internet. Many of you may have read my previous blog regarding legalising cannabis (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dr-nicholas-m-almond/cannabis-legalisation_b_3539673.html) and I received a significant amount of comments about the controversial issue. Having tried to respond to each comment in a respectful and academic way, I unfortunately received some personal abuse and some disgusting messages from a small number of people trying to discredit my academic background and standpoint. When this occurs I simply reported the abuse and did not receive any further abuse; which was welcomed and effective action by the Huffington Post.

So, the difficult question must be asked as to why do teenagers or anyone else not report such abuse? I do not subscribe to the argument that, as profiles are anonymous then it is difficult to identify the abusers. If this is the case, then there is a simple solution, which is leave the websites! Also do not give out your own email address so that these trolls (who are normally middle aged and living at home with their mothers, with nothing else better to do) cannot follow you.

I fundamentally support the prosecution of individuals who send death threats or intimidating messages through Twitter or other social media sites; such as the feminine activist who have received death threats due to their posts. One aspect of the internet and social media which needs refining is the ability to retract (unsend) messages or texts which would allow the message to be instantly retracted (without the recipient reading it). Let's be honest here, almost everyone has sent a message or email which they instantly regret but have been unable to cancel that. The problem with this is that it is easier to write a hateful or abusive message on the internet than say it to someone in person. This is a massive issue and one which requires immediate action from internet providers, phone companies and social networking sites.

There is another issue which is very complicated and that is regarding anonymity of the internet. It is important that individuals can report abuse of civil rights or any other kind of issue without being identified by an oppressive regime or by a potential abuser. However, it is also important that trolls cannot hide behind anonymity to abuse innocent people. Many of the individuals who comment on Huffington Post use pseudonyms and do not have any kind of profile; so how does one know who they are? It is also very easy to set up a free email account and join a social media network with the aim of upsetting people and abusing them. If the website blocks your username, you can easily set up a new email address and account to continue this abuse. The only way to stop this is to give the websites and/or the police the power to search for the IP addresses of service users.

We are unfortunately in a difficult situation here, where we must balance freedom of speech and liberty with protecting innocent people from abuse and ensuring that the internet is not misused. How many of us would want our websites which we subscribe to having access to our computer and email accounts? How many of us would be comfortable with the police or security services being able to see every single website which we visit? Personally I do not want the security services or anyone else knowing which sites I access, simply because I do not feel they have any right to know what I am looking at on the internet. Let's face it, if individuals want to look at porn on the internet then there are sites where a person must put in their credit card details (to prove that they are 18) to gain access. Children should not have access to these sites and if a child asks a parent to borrow their credit card then the parent should make the purchase themselves without allowing the child to know the security number etc. Then the responsibility would be on internet search engines to ensure that no explicit pictures of naked people or violent scenes could be accessed without proving one is 18 or over. This is not complicated; if you wish to post an image on Google all they need to do is review it like what hundreds of dating or social media websites do every hour of the day.

I am getting off topic here, but my key point is that social media websites should be very quick at stopping abuse IF it is reported. The key word in the last sentence is the word 'if'; websites can only do anything about abuse if it is reported, so the service user must take responsibility for reporting the abuse. Equally if the user reports the abuse and it is not dealt with then they should report the website and/or leave the website. It is not complicated; if one was in a cafe and you kept receiving abuse from a few people who you did not know then one would report it to the management and if the management did not do anything about it one would leave the cafe and perhaps report it to the police. So, why don't people do this when they are in an internet cafe?

The final critical thing which needs to be done is that parents, guardians, teachers and friends need to take more responsibility to protect individuals who are young (and vulnerable) to ensure that they do not receive any abuse. These people can act as the 'Watchdogs', but they must understand how the internet works, know what access the person has to the internet, understand what sites they are using and notice signs of distress or unhappiness. This is not complicated; when we were younger my parents would quietly pop into the study to see what we were looking at on the internet (and yes, we did get caught out quite a few times for looking at something which a 15 year old should technically not be viewing), the parents should understand that an iPhone or tablet can be used to access the internet, therefore check if one can set up parental restrictions on the device or check what your child is looking at by going into the history. Above all, parents must accept that technology is here to stay and you cannot blame technology if something goes wrong with your child's mental health; a parent needs to understand technology and if necessary engage your teenager through technology if they will not sit down and talk to you.

Any comments welcome but will the trolls stay under their bridges?!