“To save lives, we must stop this social media suicide storm”

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Over the past weeks, indeed months, there has been growing pressure from every quarter for social media companies to be held to account for the disturbing content and risks our children face in their online worlds, writes Helen Westerman, NSPCC campaign manager.

More than a year ago the NSPCC launched the Wild West Web campaign calling on the government to make social networks legally responsible for protecting children on their sites. To date, the Wild West Web petition has been signed by 40,810 people, including at least 8,888 from the North of England. At a recent Parliamentary reception we hosted, Ian Russell, whose 14-year-old daughter Molly killed herself after viewing graphic images of self-harm and suicide on Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube, called for government action.

He told the MPs who attended: “For companies like Instagram, saving a life is as straightforward as changing an algorithm – and every one of us has the power to save lives too. To save lives, we must stop this social media suicide storm.”

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What happened to Molly Russell and indeed the countless girls and boys I have talked about in these weekly columns, has not only shocked us all but has reinforced our determination to make the government take action.

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For more than a decade, tech firms have failed to follow their own rules and prioritise safeguarding on their sites - surely enough is enough. Especially when you consider that in just 18 months, police in England and Wales recorded more than 5,000 grooming offences. Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat were used in 70 per cent of the instances where police noted the grooming method. So Sunday’s op-ed in the Washington Post by Mark Zuckerberg in which he called on governments to take a role in controlling online content is very welcome indeed. But only up to a point.

Mr Zuckerberg claims the responsibility is too great for social media companies alone to monitor harmful content and his call for new laws comes just two weeks after the horrific livestreaming of a gunman’s attack on a mosque in Christchurch in New Zealand, which shattered so many lives. It’s good to see him finally facing up to the sad reality that children aren’t being protected by social networks like his.

We need an independent regulator, as part of upcoming government legislation, with the power to punish those not doing enough to keep our children safe. Only by bringing in tough statutory requirements will it be possible to achieve safety by design and break the frustrating wheel of just continually reacting to a succession of tragedies. In the meantime you can help your children stay safe online with regular online safety chats. We need the government and social media companies to play their part but we must take responsibility too. You can get more information at www.net-aware.org.uk or call the O2 NSPCC Online Safety advice line for free on 0808 800 5002.