Last year I had to travel internationally at short notice to deal with a crisis involving a family member. I will call her Alison. Throughout the year Alison had been subject to a combination of bullying at school and, as happens with some young people, periods of being alternately included in and excluded from different friendship groups. Alison's anxiety levels had progressively risen and the family discussed moving her from her school, which she had attended from age 3, to another, calmer environment. Being loath to see Alison leave some longstanding friendships, the family had talked to the school and had provided counselling support to help her deal with the issues – but we were aware the problems were still bubbling below the surface.
Despite great grades and genuine enjoyment of the teachers and her subjects, at the end of the summer term Alison finally asked to change schools. The options were investigated and we found what we hoped would be a more nurturing environment.
Very quickly, at the start of the autumn term, Alison told us that the new school did not really deliver what she needed academically, and on top of that she was experiencing a resurgence of the anxieties and insecurities which had prevailed the year before. After talking through the problem, we approached Alison's old school and requested she be given leave to re-enrol. Eventually, the headmistress agreed, and the date was set for Alison to return.
The week before this was to be announced, her mother called me in some distress to say that students at the old school had been posting about Alison on social media, and Alison was extremely distressed. The only note of relief was that Alison had been brave enough to report the matter to the teachers at her new school and to her mother.
The material was of sufficient seriousness that the police became involved. As the perpetrators were underage, prosecution was not an option, but the gravity of the issue was underscored when uniformed officers were sent to the homes of the students involved to discuss the students' actions with them and their parents.
In contrast, the response of the old school (the one Alison had attended since she was 3) was appalling. The headmistress changed her mind and decided to exclude Alison from returning to the school, which had the effect of punishing the victim and reinforcing the impression that perpetrators of online bullying could act with impunity. The police and counsellors involved were all astonished at this old-fashioned approach to the problem.
But while I can be highly critical of the school's conduct, it is a source of amazement to me that social media companies, which can formulate complex algorithms using location, history, search, and even recordings to target young people with products and services, are apparently incapable of properly policing activity on their platforms if it involves bullying, harassment, abuse or other digital harm.
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Despite the best efforts of parents and teachers, recent United Kingdom government reports confirm that online harassment and abuse has become normalised, and, as with the rest of the internet, efforts by governments to regulate or eliminate exploitation have either a negligible effect or no effect at all.
I propose two radical steps to resolve the pervasive problem of online platforms being used for purposes of abuse or harassment:
First, all social media accounts should have appropriate identification procedures in order to be activated. Existing technology means that this is not a major issue but it will mean accounts cannot be opened by young people on any platform without the knowledge and consent of their parents. Age-appropriate scanning technology would ensure no inappropriate images or content could be sent or received without adult knowledge or intervention. And the changing of a handle – the name of a given account – could not be completed without a process similar to activation procedures, requiring another parental consent.
Second, make the directors of social media companies criminally liable for any abuse that happens on their platforms. For example, under UK law it is an offence punishable by up to 10 years in prison to share a pornographic image of a minor. If this charge were applied to social media company directors you can bet your last dollar that a solution to this problem would emerge almost immediately.
Some may argue this is harsh; to that I can only say that dealing with a suicidal young person makes one highly intolerant of the carelessness and moral bankruptcy of social media owners and directors.
• Andrew Barnes is a businessman and philanthropist. He is the founder of Perpetual Guardian.