Pity poor Mark Zuckerberg everyone! Finding himself in a position quite familiar to most of us – having to explain ‘The Internet’, ‘Facebook’ and other mystifying aspects of modern life, to elderly people. For us, it’s usually parents, grandparents or people that have been living in a cave for the last 20 years. For poor Mark Zuckerberg (he didn’t look well) it was the joint Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees. For over five hours, yes that’s right, five hours, he answered questions like “What is a computer and where does it live? How can you book people’s faces?” He showed the patience of a saint. However, let us not be too hard on the elderly folks in Washington. They were asking these questions for a reason, the controversies over the privacy and the use of citizen’s data. The hearing also dealt with the issue of how young people are/aren’t protected online.
Let me take you back across the Atlantic Ocean, to a luxury flat in Islington, London, one of several I hear that the owner has bought. Upon hearing that Zuckerberg and Facebook are not apparently doing enough to protect children online. A man almost chokes on his Pimms, he puts down his copy of the Telegraph, the man orders his butler to remove his monocle and fetch him some writing parchment – the man is Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. The letter he wrote (or dictated to his servant, I’m not certain) was addressed to Google and Facebook. In his letter, Mr Hunt accuses them of “turning a blind eye” to their impact on children and their mental health and well-being. In an extract from his letter, he states that “I am concerned that your companies seem content with a situation where thousands of users breach your own terms and conditions on the minimum user age.”
“I fear that you are collectively turning a blind eye to a whole generation of children being exposed to the harmful emotional side effects of social media prematurely.”
“This is both morally wrong and deeply unfair to parents who are faced with the invidious choice of allowing children to use platforms they are too young to access or excluding them from social interaction that often the majority of their peers are engaging in.”
The mental health and well-being of our children and young people is an issue very close to my heart. As a teacher, I deal with young people and their dreams, fears, hopes, aspirations and self-defeating thoughts every day of my life. Mr Hunt thinks that the social media companies are “turning a blind eye to a whole generation of children” this does smack a little of hypocrisy to me. Certainly as we have seen under this Conservative government cuts in funding to mental health provision, cuts to youth services and social worker numbers, we have seen a huge increase in child poverty, worrying increases in child homelessness, we have seen the closure of libraries, parks and playing fields, the massive stress placed on young people due to the Dickensian changes in the GCSE exam structure – the list could go on.
Despite being a teacher, I am not a socialist. There I said it! I do however have empathy for people who need help. If we can help then we should, especially children who are essentially innocent within life – they have their whole lives ahead of them and what we as adults do with their world while they are children, can have a profound impact on their outlook and choices as they get older.
Does social media have a responsibility to look after young people online? The answer must be yes, of course, however, it is also the responsibility of parents and stakeholders such as schools to take their share of responsibility. If you want to join Facebook it asks you if you are 13 or above – it is not that difficult to click ‘yes, I am over 13’ is it Mr Zuckerberg? So, work to be done.
Mr Hunt? Sort yourself out. Firstly try to remember in which of your seven luxury flats you live in, then look closer to home when dealing with the problem of children’s mental health. Ask yourself if you and your government have done enough, before looking to shift the blame onto a private company or an entire industry. It does not look good in one of the oldest democracies in the world when all we see is hypocrisy. Yes, I know, budgets are tight and getting tighter – but you have a responsibility to get your priorities straight. Spend some money on education, children’s well-being and mental health. Just ignoring the growing problem or placing the blame elsewhere is not acceptable.
Mr Hunt said the government would not rule out introducing new legislation to tackle the issue when it publishes its response to the Internet Safety Strategy consultation in May. So in the mixed-up, crazy world we live in, we will have a conservative government who insist upon placing regulations and red tape onto private companies in order to solve a social problem. Sounds like the political world really is upside down.