Amid all the sound and fury about Syria and anti-semitism this week I led a debate in Parliament about cyberbullying of young people. It might sound like a niche issue, but over the last two years I have learnt from speaking to teenagers in Cheltenham’s schools that it is hugely important.
It coincided with research published by the Prince’s Trust suggesting that young people’s wellbeing is at its lowest level since the study was first commissioned in 2009.
Nor is this just a British phenomenon. A recent article by NBC in the US, citing research from John Hopkins university, referred to an “acute health crisis among members of the youngest generation of Americans, with critical implications for the country's future.”
And yet the debate so often seems to focus on cure – on what is being done to meet this enduring surge. Cure is important of course. We need to focus with similar energy on prevention too.
Evidence from the 1,000 young people we contacted suggested that cyberbullying was the single biggest risk factor to mental health associated with social media use. Relentless, inescapable and devastating, we heard harrowing evidence of young people taken to the very edge of despair. And it can be a scarring experience. One child psychologist referred to “lasting consequences on the adolescent brain”.
That’s why I called on social media companies to do more to tackle the perpetrators. At present the burden is very much on the victim to act – to block or delete. Reporting all too often feels like shouting into an empty room, and there is a perceived lack of consequences for the trolls.
Some platforms are starting to take this more seriously, with signposting, resource hubs and so on. But measures remain tokenistic – slow and inadequate. And the lack of transparency about cyberbullying incidents and responses means companies continue essentially to mark their own homework.
Social media is a force for good. And social media platforms can’t be expect to do it all. But where it comes to cyberbullying for the sake of young people’s mental health they need to raise their game.