View from the Street: How do you solve a problem like social media?

@CDP1882

View from the Street: How do you solve a problem like social media?

Ethicists and moral philosophers are prone to pondering what future generations will lambast us for. Australian thinker Peter Singer is convinced that our grandchildren will look back at contemporary carnivore culture with the same disgust that we feel when considering the legacy of slavery. Many feminists contest that much of our future shame will be felt for today’s failure to ensure the emancipation of women worldwide.  
 
If there’s one thing that I’m certain will one day be considered a great failing of our generation, it is our willingness to let social media go unchecked in the hands of children and teenagers.
 
As a rule, children do not use social media in the same way as adults. The only people who gossip online more than teenagers are celebrity journalists. There are playground muckrakers, constantly keen to transfer the petty daily drama of school life to the online world. Tech companies have recognised this, and have dished up a few attempted solutions to the problem of online teenage nastiness. They have yet to prove successful.
 
The most recent attempt, a “positivity” app for teenagers called Tbh, is being shut down by Facebook due to a lack of demand. The app asked users multiple-choice questions about their mates, with the answers delivered as digital compliments. Questions might include “Who has the best smile?” or “Who makes you laugh the most?” The identity of the user paying the compliment is not disclosed, but their gender is revealed by the use of pink or blue.
 
Tbh was designed as a response to other anonymous messaging apps that have made headlines throughout the social media boom due to their notorious connection with cyber-bullying. That Tbh failed says a lot about why many children use social media.
 
Social media is a catalyst for advancing the distribution of playground nastiness. Whilst positivity apps like Tbh fail, sites that are known for their link to bullying continue to thrive.
 
Our excessively liberal attitude to social media has already had some unsettling consequences. As a part of their strategy for reducing cyberbullying, The Children’s Society launched an inquiry into its impact on young people’s mental health. Their Safety Net report earlier this year found that almost half of 1,089 11 to 25-year-olds sampled had experienced threatening or nasty social media messages. Most of the time, this added avenue to be unkind simply adds to the typical level of nastiness you might expect. But at their most extreme, cyber-bullying cases have led to horrible, life-shattering situations.
 
There is work that needs to be done by parents. Many are quick to blame social media sites for failing to prevent bullying on these apps, but it’s difficult to quantify what steps could be taken to make a difference. Instead of relying on tech entrepreneurs and coders to solve the problem of online bullying, the focus should be shifted to homes. Parents must prevent their children from using social media at a young age, and once online it is imperative that usage is tightened. The social media experience is moreish; without limits it can be engrossing.
 
The Safety Net report recommended that companies “give young users clearer guidelines on how they should behave online.” One of the last people I’d look to for teaching someone how to behave, online or otherwise, is a tech worker. It is demonstrably a responsibility for home, not business.
 
In the communications industry, professionals must consider how the next generation will feel about and use social media. It is a brilliant tool that can be harnessed to achieve fantastic things for business and culture. But if we continue to allow unchecked access and a laissez-faire attitude towards its dangers during formative years, we will soon be faced with a generation who associate social media with gloating, boasting and bullying. This will be a significant loss. To prevent this, and the historical disdain of our grandchildren, it’s time to present teenagers with a different relationship to social media. 

Charlie Peters is a researcher with Charlotte Street Partners, currently studying for a masters degree in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.