Away from Brexit, something happened in Parliament this week which I believe marks a decisive step forward in tackling poor mental health in our young people, including here in Cheltenham.
The trigger was not the speech of a cabinet minister or a medical expert. Instead it was the harrowing testimony of the father of 14-year old Molly Russell, who took her own life. He is convinced that she was driven to suicide by material on Pinterest and Instagram. Her social media history on her Instagram account showed that she had been looking at graphic and explicit posts about depression, self-harm and suicide – despite the site’s house rules supposedly prohibiting such content.
This is an issue I am passionate about as Cheltenham’s MP. Social media is overall a force for good, but having talked with young people and teachers from All Saints’ to Balcarras, I have been left in no doubt about the potential harm this technology can cause. Last year I set up a parliamentary inquiry to examine the highly corrosive impact of cyberbullying on young people. The findings were harrowing.
As a result I have long believed we needed to take tougher action. And I’ve concluded that self-regulation, which would be infinitely preferable, is not going to work. That’s because social media platforms have, overall, shown themselves to be evasive. First they denied the existence of the content. Then, once proved, they claimed to be mere platforms not publishers. Then, under pressure, they created new rules, but failed to enforce them rigorously enough. That’s presumably because doing so costs money which they don’t want to spend.
But this week, I detect that attitudes amongst MPs shifted. I believe there is now support for an independent regulator, as in Germany, who would have the power to remove harmful material and impose fines. That body should be answerable to Parliament.
The time for pussyfooting is over. Decisive action is now required to keep our young people safe.