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Social Affairs: Parents and Social Media Misuse

In my last column I made the point that there are many dangers in everyday life, and I was also critical of parents who do not adequately supervise their children’s use of social media. I make the same point in my book, ‘Comments of a Common Man’ (£9.99 from Amazon), and following mainstream media publicity over the tragic death from suicide of a 14-year-old, that publicity has continued with, unsurprisingly, the Government weighing in with comments that further restrictions and laws will be placed on social media operators and owners.

Yet none of the commentary over the past couple of weeks address any of my points; namely that parents are not doing what they should, and that rather than placing the entire blame for every ill on social media, more attention must be paid to those who post harmful material to start with.

Let me start (again) by reiterating that my thoughts are with those who have lost a loved one through misuse of social media. Nobody deserves to be on the end of any form of abuse, whether it is from another user of a social media platform, online, in person or from any source. Including that of the state, via the Government and its organisations and agencies.

Nevertheless, for those who may disagree with my contention that part of the responsibility lies with parents, take one example and again, one with tragic consequences; that of Irene Casey-Evans. She was a retired head teacher who died in a head-on car crash, when she was driving, eating her breakfast and using her mobile phone – all at the same time.

Miss Casey-Evans was driving to collect her baby grandson on the A18 at Barnetby Top, near Grimsby, when she lost control of her car and veered across the road and collided with a van. Crash investigators found no sign of braking as she crossed the centre of the road at around 40mph into the path of the van. At the inquest, Miss Casey-Evans’ partner told the Coroner that she regularly used her phone while driving and investigators later found that she had made two calls to him around the time of the accident. Her son testified that his mother had ‘lost all common sense’ in recent years and was ‘always in a rush’, dismissing his warnings over her use of her phone while driving. The Coroner, Mark Kendall, concluded that the cause of the crash was the result of the grandmother’s ‘inattention’ due to eating, drinking and using her phone. As we have seen, Irene Casey-Evans was a grandmother and a retired school head teacher – so what kind of example was she setting? As sad as the case is, and even though every sympathy must be extended to Miss Casey-Evans’ family, hers was an avoidable death. Even more tragically, she is not alone.

There are, up and down the UK, and in all walks of life, grandparents and parents who are not setting the right example to their children. There are parents who are allowing their toddlers to use a tablet unsupervised while they themselves are glued to their own. Let’s pause and look at other reports regarding this; there have been a number of them, all pointing out that increasing numbers of under-fives are given an internet-connectable device and left to themselves. Under five? Take that literally – it means that four-year-old toddlers, not yet in school, are looking at the internet and without any parental supervision. Why?

Why are so many parents abdicating their duty as parents? Often it is because their own parents – the grandparents - failed somewhere along the line. For a more in-depth explanation as to why this is, go and buy that book of mine – it will make you think. The result however, is that far, far too many teenagers (and those of older ages) now have grown up with the idea that it is ‘safe’ to have unrestricted and unsupervised access to the internet.

One of the side-effects are recent calls to ‘ban’ under 16s from having smartphones. There may be some logic to the demand but one of the aspects to children having a smartphone is the number of such devices that now have tracking software on them that allows parents to know where their children are. This may again have some merit but there is also the concept of children being able to call for help should they need it. Granted a smartphone isn’t necessary for that – any ordinary mobile phone with no internet connectivity will do, but if parents do want to know where their kids are, a smartphone is required. And the internet connection that goes with one can be vital in an emergency, should it be needed - which doesn’t mean such connectivity must be unsupervised.

Do not however, blame only social media platforms – yes, they must act much more quickly to remove harmful content, but why allow children unsupervised access to it to start with?

Now let’s look at that content. Or more accurately, who puts it there.

Social media platforms have millions of users. Almost everything that those users upload is funnelled through automated systems so it appears instantly. If it wasn’t, the operators of social media platforms would need equal millions of staff to process it and decide if it should be uploaded at all. The costs of doing so would mean that no social media platform would exist. They are, after all, free to use, which is why they have become so successful and used by so many. Although operators, whether it is Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any other, do have a responsibility to develop better ways of removing harmful content more quickly, the real responsibility lies with those who upload it to start with.

So, as I asked in my last column, why are fake names permitted? Why can anybody simply fill in an online form with any name other than their own and then immediately begin to post what they like?

When joining any social media platform, the starting point must be your real name and the one that you will thus use, your real address and if under 18 (not 13 – 18) a parental digital signature is used, known only to the parent, not the under 18 user. As to proof of your identity, have you tried opening a bank account in the UK lately? Or applying for a passport?

A passport is one of the most basic accepted forms of identifying oneself but to get one…you have to identify yourself first. There are numerous Government-issued documents that will do this and people get new passports all the time. The same applies (in the UK) to a photographic driving licence, the second most oft-used form of identification. That parental digital signature I mentioned; it could, as an example, contain the passport number or driving licence number of the parent. Just as it could the adult user of social media. There are other forms of ID that can be used; as a journalist, I have a National Press photographic identity card. It satisfies the police and security services at sensitive places like airports that I am who I say I am, so I can see no reason why it should not satisfy a social media platform operator. Or for that matter a bank.

If any new law is required, it is that one, one that requires the user to actually identify themselves (and their age if under 18) and it is one that social media platforms should be lobbying their own government to introduce. Since most of them are based in the USA, then the US government need to be setting a lead. It is one that any responsible social media operator should endorse and one that any responsible government should also endorse.

Although this would not solve every problem, it would go some way to reducing misuse, by both children and those who upload content and, most significantly, when harmful content is found, not only can it be removed but the uploader can then be traced and prosecuted – it is worth reminding ourselves that there already exist laws that enable such prosecutions to take place. No system can ever be perfect but what there is not a need for are yet more laws aimed solely at social media. It is one thing to place the entire blame for social media misuse on the operators of that media, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that users should take some responsibility as well.

The only end result of placing more and more laws on social media itself is the further restriction of free speech and our ability, as free citizens, to communicate. And ultimately the removal of that in its entirety.

© Kevan James 2019

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