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When Consent Cannot Be Given

Safer Internet Day 2019, on February 5, concentrated on the importance of young people giving free and informed consent to their engagements online.

This year, it coincided with the distressing story of Molly Russell, a fourteen year old girl who took her life after viewing shocking images of self-harm online. Her family believe that social media outlets like Instagram and Pinterest made Molly’s depression more acute with the deployment of algorithms that fed her things no girl of her age should have to see. A few weeks after she died, Pinterest sent her a photo of a gashed thigh and the words: ‘I can’t tell you how many times I wish I was dead’.


The algorithms are, in the truest sense, amoral; lacking any ethical structure in which children can be safeguarded online. Or at least, we assume this. As social media companies jealously guard their codes, we guess from empirical evidence that the goal is only to maximise profit. This means users are fed a diet of the things they are interested in to keep them online and exposed to adverts that bring revenue. This might be harmless for some, but for others it is not. To the Russells, it was a matter of life and death. No child gives meaningful consent to this kind of exposure and any debate about consent must address this question.


The mantra of social media companies that they only provide a platform and are not responsible for content must be challenged, again and again. The problem is, most of us approach social media purely as consumers. When we think about the wider ethical debates, we imagine it is for someone else to deal with. As Jamie Susskind has argued in Future Politics, it is only when we begin to approach the internet as citizens too, that structures might begin to change.


Political interventions are called for. Libertarians and deregulators will oppose this on philosophical, and businesses on financial, grounds, but public health should be prioritised. Public pressure can be brought to bear on those who legislate – and it will take a lot of it, for social media companies are now so big and their lobbying so effective, that it is often easier for politicians to ride the storm that cases like Molly stir up, in the hope things will quieten down. But there will be many more Mollys to come if we do not act together as citizens.


Neither is the current crisis in young people’s mental health purely the fault or responsibility of Silicon Valley. Mental health services have been cut back severely, leaving many young people waiting months for treatment when getting to the end of the day is a mountain in itself. Voluntary bodies, including churches, have thinking to do around the contribution they can make to well-being. It’s easy pointing fingers. It’s more unsettling to think about taking some personal steps which might help. For if we need to be citizens as well as consumers online, some of us need to be Christians too. We’re a long way from working out what that looks like right now.



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© 2019 Simon Burton-Jones All Rights Reserved