OPINION: For our children’s sake we need to act on the curse of social media

Stock image.
Stock image.

CYBERBULLYING is a scourge and it won’t stop until we regulate social media companies.

The death of 14-year-old Amy “Dolly” Everett in the NT and the attempted suicide of another eight-year old girl in Queensland this week brings home to us that children taking their own lives as a result of cyberbullying is becoming far, far too common.

Our society is abjectly failing to protect our kids while we continue to allow this intentional harm to flourish unchecked online.

Did you know suicide is now a leading cause of unexpected death for children aged 13-17 in Western Australia, along with road trauma? Seriously, suicide is killing as many of our kids as road crashes.

It’s killing more than illness, medical conditions or any other non-medical causes combined. I was appalled when I read this statistic, as it was made even more horrifying by how avoidable these deaths are if we only had the resolve to do something about it.

We look at the news coverage of ongoing shooting rampages in US schools, and we smile sadly while we think “Well, they could do something about it by just regulating gun ownership, but they have a real blind spot about that. It could never happen here…”

Well, we have a blind spot too – it’s called social media.

Our love affair with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Vimeo, WhatsApp, WeChat, Messenger, QZone and all the other social communication channels is in my view, the single biggest contributor to youth suicide in Australia today.

And because we all like looking at our holiday photos online, keeping in touch with the family and watching cute cat videos, we turn a blind eye to the fact that these social media platforms have a dark side, that they are almost totally unregulated by industry or government, and that they are doing our kids untold harm on a daily basis.

Like it or not, most kids live their lives pretty much 24/7 on social media now, and the research shows us that it is their online “friends” and peers who are doing the bullying, not random adult strangers.

Telling children to just “don’t go online” if they’re being bullied (assuming they even tell parents they are) is like us telling them not to breathe – it’s completely impractical advice from their perspective as it would mean cutting themselves off from their peer group.

And although I hate to admit it, educating kids about online bullying doesn’t change the reality of how hard it is to deal with when it’s happening to you.

Children’s self-esteem is so fragile, and so often measured by what others think of them.

They haven’t had the life experience to build walls that will serve to armour them against hurtful and hateful comments. And so when their friend group turns on them online, they can’t deal with it.

They can’t escape and for a range of reasons won’t tell anyone, and in their world view it is such a massive thing that taking your own life can be seen as a better solution than being a social outcast and miserable.

How did we get here?

When did this huge problem sneak up on us?

With the rampant explosion of social media, this situation is only going to get much worse, not better, and we are sleepwalking into having an entire generation grow up with mental health issues caused by social media bullying.

Well I say, enough.

If the Mark Zuckerberg’s of the world won’t do something voluntarily to make their patently unsafe product safe for children to use, then government has a responsibility to make them do it.

Regulation, enforceable codes of conduct, massive fines for breaches – these are all levers that government can bring to bear to make social media platforms take this issue seriously.

They already do it for toys, swimming pools, theme parks, electrical goods, etc, so why not for the most psychologically dangerous environment a child can find themselves in?

Change requires the insight to recognise the scale of the impending disaster we are facing, and some backbone and commitment to implement often complex solutions.

These aren’t character traits we automatically associate with our politicians, who these days tend to put things in the too hard basket if a decision is going to be unpopular with their electorate or powerful lobby groups, or where change takes longer than a single electoral cycle to implement.

But that’s why we have to force them by making our voices heard.

This is Australia’s school shooting debate.

If we don’t demand that the social media industry be forced to self-regulate its harmful content, then we are accepting that it is going to keep happening, that it will happen more and more often, and that like the US, we’ve given up trying to stop it.

And that means we will have to take ownership of the continuing damage that we will be accepting for our young people.

David Gribble