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Teens online: Where’s the harm?

In 2018, Mark Zuckerberg was hauled in front of the US Congress to talk about his role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It could have been an enormously popular moment for Washington had they taken Facebook to task, because there’s a Big Tech grievance for every political persuasion. Russian electoral interference, privacy abuses, ideological censorship, behavioural manipulation, tax avoidance, fake news… take your pick. But in fact, it was exactly this diversity of accusations that allowed Zuckerberg to leave largely unscathed. The lack of a unified argument against Facebook prevented a coherent round of negative press, and instead it was the gaffes of ill-informed elderly senators that made the headlines.

Online, the incompetence of the legislators was mocked, but if their job is to act as representatives of the people, then perhaps the politicians did better than we would like to admit. The discordance of the Zuckerberg hearing was indicative of the confusion of the larger debate about social media. And there is a danger here that our professional opinions might be coloured through a ‘Halo Effect’ – whereby our general disposition towards social media companies spills over into judgements about their specific activities. That can cut both ways – if political scandals have led you to feel Twitter is generally social ill, then you’re also more likely to assume its complicity in future charges; meanwhile those who are defensive on the past record will remain so when new evidence is presented.

In the law enforcement industry, we should be particularly worried about the role of social media in promoting adolescent delinquency. But the abundance of other reasons to love or hate social media threatens to cloud our judgement. How, then, can we soberly identify those online harms that are real from those that are invented? Theories abound about the deleterious effect of social media on adolescent wellbeing, but in fact such an effect is very much in the realm of debate amongst the experts. One high-profile study recently found that the link between general wellbeing and internet time was only marginally stronger than the (also negative) link with potato-eating. Its author, Dr. Amy Orben, does not deny that online harm exist however, she exposes some of the fundamentally flawed thinking amongst the most zealous detractors of social media.

First, she says, we should stop worrying about the amount of time spent online, and rather focus on the content that young people consume. Written explicitly, this seems obvious, and you probably think you already believed that. Maybe you did, but this myth is pervasive not only through society but also through time. Concerns over ‘television addiction’ used to be commonplace, and now we play documentaries in classrooms. Before that we feared that young minds were being poisoned by excessive radio-listening. These technologies aren’t radioactive, there is no risk invisibly accumulated by spending time with them. This way of thinking has been a cause of unjustified panic about new technologies in the past, and it is now being applied to social media. But that’s not to say that the internet isn’t dangerous, only that the dangers are less mysterious than we sometimes imagine them to be. Online, the danger is not an abstract exposure effect, rather it lies in the obvious mechanisms of harm – grooming, sexting, cyberbullying, and so on. Social media isn’t harmful in and of itself, but it provides a platform that can amplify dangerous people.

The second error we tend to make is about who gets hurt. It’s tempting to believe that online harms are universal – that fits the narrative of an exposure effect, and allows us to claim, ‘we’re all in this together’. But we’re not. Unfortunately, some people are more easily exploited than others,  regardless of the platform. We are naturally, and correctly, averse to ‘victim blaming’, but as Dr. Orben notes, there are clear differences between individuals’ reactions and outcomes from social media usage. On average, general wellbeing is poorly correlated with social media use, but that average is comprised of many positive social media experiences and a few very negative ones.

The lesson for policymakers is not to overcomplicate it. The benefits of getting all children to spend less time online are trivial – perhaps non-existent – compared to the benefits of warding off the online behaviours of specific young people. One such behaviour that law enforcement and policy makers should be particularly worried about is accepting without challenge the social media allure of Organised Criminal Gangs (OCGs). In short, targeted young people are contacted and groomed online by gangs whose goal is to recruit low-cost, replaceable, drug mules to carry out the groundwork of organised crime. The harm is tangible, it’s based on a specific use-case of online communications platforms, and it’s targeted towards some kids who are more likely to be susceptible than others.

There are three groups we could target to mitigate this harm. First, we could try to tell the gangs to be nicer online. That’s pretty unlikely to work. Second, we could talk to Zuckerberg and his silicon valley pals. But this is where we need to separate this issue from our prior beliefs about Big Tech. Passionate critics and advocates alike would try to involve the social media companies either on the grounds of their complicity or their benevolence. But whether you love them or loathe them, their options to help are limited. While they might be able to delete and block the most obvious offenders, there is relatively little that the social media companies can do at the granular level without spying on the content of messages. That leaves us with the third option, talking to potential victims, and this is the direction that anti-exploitation policy should take.

So what, then, is being done already to protect vulnerable young people? The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children names several preventative measures for general online exploitation, but they can be reduced to two axes – coerciveness and formality. Each quadrant has its own set of problems. Informal persuasion requires pre-existing trust between the vulnerable young person and some authority figure, and the kids who lack this ‘social capital’ are exactly the ones the gangs will target.

Formal persuasion has the same problem, but compounded by the fact that these sorts of lessons are likely to come across as preachy and out of touch. Kids know fine well that they understand social media better than their teachers. Informal rules are an option for when persuasion fails, but they have the downside of disincentivising honest conversations about negative online interactions. Finally, technical solutions might seem the fallback option. Just make the dangers impossible to access! But any semi-competent teenager will learn how to use a VPN or similar tools to get around a content blocker. Building a wall only generates demand for slightly-taller ladders, and in some cases a digital block is just a way to ‘gamify’ access to dangerous content.

Despite all of these flaws, its worth noting that the NSPCC’s solutions are effective. Most children use the internet safely and enjoyably, and learn the boundaries of what is safe and what isn’t. But we know that some don’t, and we can see why these solutions won’t work in those cases. So where do we turn?

One novel solution might be borrowed from work on another online harm: fake news. In this field, Dr Sander van der Linden has used ‘inoculation theory’ – a social-science adaptation of vaccines – to measurably decrease susceptibility to fake news stories. His innovative method was to create an online simulation game where players grow a cartoonishly evil fake news empire, using the same strategies as real peddlers of disinformation. Just as with a vaccine, a harmless caricature of the real pathology is introduced to the subject so that they are prepared to identify and reject the real thing.

So could we develop an inoculation game for online grooming? I don’t see why not. Built properly, it can be something that young people will participate in voluntarily – inoculation games aren’t the same as the cheesy ‘educational games’ that adolescents see right through and ignore. These games can be genuinely entertaining in their own right, while still bestowing preventative benefits. We know the strategies that County Lines gangs use in their recruitment – befriending, a sense of community, cash rewards, blackmail. It is clearly a provocative and disquieting proposal to get children to simulate the process of exploitative criminal recruitment, but it was also uncomfortable to teach people how to spread fake news. Indeed there are plenty who find medical vaccination discomforting. But if we are careful to monitor the effects and side-effects of an inoculation game, we already know that they can provide considerably more good than harm.

Just as with the NSPCC’s interventions, the Fake News game, and indeed real vaccines, an inoculation game will not be the panacea for county lines grooming. But what it might be able to do is protect some of those young people who cannot be persuaded or coerced by conventional means. By working around the edges of the most vulnerable online, we can gradually reduce the supply of exploited young drug mules, taking another step to close in the walls on County Lines gangs.

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©Forensic Analytics 2020






  • Steve Rick

    Steve is passionate about social policy since his postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics. He’s a Fellow of the Royal Society for Arts and has been a visiting lecturer at a number of business schools and universities, as well as contributing author.  

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