Digital accountability to improve the mental wellbeing of young people won’t work

Forget the cyberbullying and anti-trolling laws: prevention is better than the cure, writes The Creative Collective founder Yvette Adams.

This month, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison proposed new laws calling for stronger accountability from multinational technology companies in a bid to prevent anonymous online trolls targeting vulnerable people, and to aid defamation cases. 

Under the current legislation, social media companies are not considered to be the publishers of the material posted to their platforms. If a user makes defamatory comments on a Facebook page, for instance, legal responsibility lies with the owner of the page.

The federal government’s latest efforts to close the gap between real life and online discourse miss the mark once again, clearly demonstrating a lack of understanding of how social media platforms operatefrom how publishers use them to what Australian consumers want from them. 

Naming and shaming online trolls, and forcing them out of the shadows will help to deter perpetrators, albeit superficially. But these proposed laws do not get close enough to the heart of the problems. 

Bullying and trolling on social media is unfortunately widespread. As a mother of two teenagers, and a stepmum to two more, I have both witnessed and experienced online abuse first-hand. I have also seen how the platforms can be highly addictive for my teens and their friends, and the mental health impacts of high use too. Isn’t this the elephant in the room that the government should be addressing? Meaning shouldn’t they be learning what these platforms actually are, how the kids are actually using them and where the problems are actually emanating from? Let me tell you, it isn’t just online trolls and defamation. 

For us as a society to have a sustained positive impact on the mental wellbeing of young social media users; parents, educators and lawmakers must collectively understand the technology that drives social media, the temptation and risks it presents, and be armed with the tools needed to effectively help users navigate the complexities of living in a highly enabled and digital world. Our teens admit they all need help with it sometimes, yet they also tell me that most of their parents and educators have no idea what the networks do, how they use it or how to help them where there are issues, which is where the government’s current approach is falling short.  

It is not enough to simply hold trolls to account after they have committed an act of hatred. What we need is a holistic approach that is built on educating young people from the moment they start using social media, so that the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable online are clearly defined from the beginning. Sure, parents need to take responsibility here, but the educators and whoever is being sent into schools to teach them about cyberbullying and cyber safety also need a lot more education. 

By focusing resources on providing consistent high-quality education, young people would have the opportunity to learn techniques to self-regulate their social media usage, reflect on their mood before and after using their favourite platforms and might be more open to “spot checks”, from parents or educators. I often say to my teens, “if you are afraid to show me at any time what you are doing on social media, we have a problem.”  

It is clear that social media is not going away, no matter what new law ScoMo or the next politician enforces, therefore we need to learn to live with it. We all play a role in helping our young people navigate the fun times and the treacherous teenage waters from the distance of a hand-held device. So learn a little, have an open conversation and take social media and mental health seriously. We all owe it to our kids. 

Yvette Adams is the founder of The Creative Collective and The Training Collective.


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