Fixing Neverland: social media and youth violence

A new report by Crest Advisory, with research supported by the VRU, sets out the challenge parents, police and other professionals face keeping children safe in social media spaces. How can a public health approach to violence reduction tackle violence which incubates within social media, unseen by adults?

Joe Caluori, Head of Research & Policy, Crest Advisory

Today’s blog is provided by Joe Caluori, Head of Research & Policy at Crest Advisory:

The murder of Olly Stephens shocked the whole country. A 13 year old boy from a supportive and loving family, murdered by two teenage boys who were known to him, aged 13 and 14. The attack took place a stones’ throw from Olly’s family home in a leafy, affluent suburb of Reading.

Olly’s murder is inextricably linked to social media. The apparent motive was a message Olly sent, warning someone their younger brother had been ‘patterned’ (a ritual humiliation filmed on a phone and shared with peers). Olly’s murder was concieved, organised and co-ordinated on social media. But digital evidence gleaned from social media was also crucial for the police investigation and securing guilty verdicts in Court.

Social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat are now an integral part of the social lives of children in the UK. Yet regulation of these platforms is distributed across five agencies and the companies are largely self-policing. Because of this lax framework, children and young people spend increasing amounts of time in unregulated, unsupervised online spaces which are accessible to them at ever younger ages. Many of the dangers and risks children face have migrated into these online spaces, hidden from the eyes of parents and carers, teachers, police or social workers.

Olly was just 13 when he was killed

In the four days leading up to Olly’s stabbing, nearly 2000 SnapChat voice notes had been sent between the four young people involved. The night before, a large group of children and young people were messaging across social media apps throughout the night for hours at a time. The presence of online bystanders witnessing conflicts escalate amplifies petty arguments into real world violence when children and young people feel they have to seek revenge to avoid losing face and being humiliated online.

In our focus groups we found that parents of primary school aged children were unprepared for the risks their children face online. The strategies they use are no longer effective when their child is at secondary school, in a year group of 180 children or more. By the time their children are at secondary school, parents and carers are often afraid to deprive them of a smartphone or access to social media in case their child is socially excluded by their peers. When they see content that worries them they tend not to inform the school or the police in extremis, in case their child is regarded as a ‘grass’.

Even those parents who try to closely monitor their children’s use of social media face an uphill battle. The technology develops at such a pace that it feels impossible to keep up. End to end encrypted messaging (e2EE) – in which only the sender and receiver(s) of messages can view their contents – is a case in point. In our poll, we asked parents if children should be allowed to use E2EE. We also asked them which apps their children use. Of those parents who said children should not have access to E2EE, 53% of them unwittingly allow their children to use apps which offer E2EE.

There are things which can be done nationally and locally to manage these new emerging risks.

The Online Safety Bill is due to be reintroduced to Parliament. This Bill offers a perhaps once in a generation opportunity to address social media as a cause of violence, laying down clear rules for tech companies and equipping the police, schools and children’s services with the resources and knowledge necessary to protect children from harm online. For example, introducing a five star rating system for social media companies, scoring their approaches to issues such as age verification would help parents, carers and professionals navigate the ever changing social media landscape.

Fines collected for systematic failures to prevent online harms could be used to fund digital analysts and police safer school officers who can advise children on how to stay safe using social media and also warn of the potential consequences of posting harmful or abusive content.

Schools, children’s services, police forces and violence reduction units should consider the relationship between social media and violence within their work, but to do this they need the backing of the Government setting the rules for big tech companies who are beyond the reach of local agencies.

You can read the final report on the project page on Crest’s website. This page also contains links to a long read on Drill music and violence, and the results of a poll of adults’ views on children using social media, published as part of the wider project.