The tragic case of Molly Russell has woken the country up to the corrosive impact that social media is having on the mental health of our young people.
In 2017, Molly took her own life, having viewed distressing images of self-harm and suicide via Instagram, which her father said had undoubtedly contributed to her death.
Molly’s is the latest of a series of cases showing that when it comes to dealing with harmful content on their platforms, social media companies believe they can behave with impunity.
One of the most sinister aspects of Molly’s story was that even after her death her account was bombarded with the same images of self-harm that led to her taking her own life. As the Children’s Commissioner remarked, children are an afterthought for these companies.
It is time for social media companies to break out of their complacent, laissez-faire attitude to the safety of our young people online. Instagram’s latest announcement of a package of measures to tackle harmful content, including the introduction of ‘sensitivity screens’ is a meagre response to this crisis. Token efforts like this will not do and offer few real safeguards to tech-literate young people.
Social media companies complain that it will be too difficult to find every harmful post on their platforms, but these protests don’t wash when the likes of Facebook, which owns Instagram, along with other platforms, make tens of billions of pounds each year. These tech giants are perfectly capable of eradicating this harmful material, but they are more interested in their profits.
For too long these companies have been given licence to behave as they please by this Government. It is not good enough for Matt Hancock to say that he has long been worried about the harms being propagated by social media companies.
So far, he and his colleagues have done nothing to tame these companies and their devil-may-care attitude towards the wellbeing of young people. The promise of firm action has come far too late.
By contrast, Labour has been calling on these companies to face up to their responsibilities. We have warned of the damaging effects these platforms are having on children’s mental health.
That is why Labour proposed a real Duty of Care for social media companies to protect young people from online harm. We will impose punitive fines for companies that fail to protect, or use predatory techniques against, their youngest and most vulnerable users. These fines will hit companies where it hurts: their bottom lines.
If the Government is serious about protecting our young people, they need to say explicitly that they will do the same. However, action to combat online harms must also tackle the mental health impact of social media use.
Molly’s heart-breaking case falls against the backdrop of a broader mental health crisis among our children and young people. The results of a YouGov survey this week found that the number of young people in the UK who say they do not believe that life is worth living has doubled in the last decade.
Professor Louis Appleby, head of the national suicide prevention strategy, warned that we are presiding over a suicidal generation of young people after provisional data from the Office of National Statistics shows that teenage suicides have spiked in the last year.
More children than ever before are developing mental health conditions, but this increase in the prevalence of mental ill health comes at a time when accessing services has never been harder for many children.
Years of Tory cuts means that only one in three children and young people can access crucial mental health treatment. Children are waiting as long as eighteen months to be seen by a therapist. It is this toxic combination of factors that is leading to more children in mental health crisis – and worse.
Our children cannot continue to be an afterthought. That is why at the last election Labour pledged to spend a greater proportion of NHS mental health funding on children’s services, ring-fence budgets and enable access to a counselling service in every secondary school.
If this Government will not protect our children from harm, then Labour will.
Barbara Keeley MP is the shadow cabinet minister for mental health and social care