Be Secure Online Blog

Can Social Media be blamed for high teen suicide rates in the UK?

Molly Russell, 14 yr old, Harrow, England

molly russell, ian russell, teenage suicide UK, instagram
The tragic case of Molly, whose dad Ian, forced the UK Govt to action against Instagram

Updated November 2021 Social Media and the amount of time we spend online have a greater effect on our lives and mental health than we, as adults, can often comprehend.

Our children have an even less understanding of the impact social media, online bullying and instant gratification have on their day-to-day life, health and well-being.

Mental health issues such as low self-esteem, depression and anxiety, lack of human connection, poor memory, problems sleeping, and limited attention spans are issues faced by a large percentage of the world’s population and many believe they can be linked to social media usage.

Shockingly, suicide is the leading cause of teenage deaths in Britain at around 200 per year. And in the past year, our internet safety speakers have come across several suicides in schools that were not reported in the media. After talking to some parents and teachers, it’s clear that they blame the involvement of social media.

holly russell suicide, instagram, mental health
When pushed hard, Facebook, Instagram and others can be pushed into action, there's a lot to be done.

The government takes a stand against Social Media giants

Last week, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced the government's plight against teenage suicide and its want to enforce social media giants such as Facebook, Google and Apple to take action when suicidal interest is mentioned or researched on their platforms.

This comes after the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who had displayed no sign of suicidal thoughts or behaviours. However, after reviewing her social media accounts, Molly showed a clear interest in suicide - news, which was a complete surprise to her parents.

BBC Interview, A Key moment in social media?

holly russell, matt hancock, adam mosseri, Instagram, andrew marr, bbc
BBC host Andrew Marr interviewed Matt Hancock about Molly Russell, Facebook reacted in 3 days

In this interview in early 2019, politicians showed that social media, especially Facebook, had something to protect and could be called into line. Andrew Marr, a BBC journalist interviewed secretary of state Hancock, was told Facebook owners of Instagram to take serious action or legislation would be introduced. Instagram blinked first. But they achieved their main aim, not being legislated. So a 1-1 draw.

Mr Hancock, MP for West Suffolk, used the opportunity to remind the various social media platforms of their 'duty of care to the public. This led to Adam Mosseri from Facebook and Instagram saying they would actively curate self-harm content within three days. 

Facebook Instagram Reaction

  • Facebook reacted for several reasons, Instagram is the star product in the portfolio of Facebook, it earns a fortune in advertising, and is the Chairman's pet. Facebook promised previous WhatsApp owners that it would not be used for advertising which makes Instagram even more important to the company. 
  • Britain is the country most likely to enforce real rules on the Industry
  • The threat of action by the UK Govt appeared very real to Facebook
  • Social Media are doing everything they can to delay protecting their monopolies
  • Instagram also started deliberately subduing 'likes' on posts (not on the poster side, though)
  • Instagram CEO started positioning Instagram as the happy platform

This shows that these companies (big tech) will act when in their self-interest, and they can edit / curating content even in real time.  

Are Social Media Platforms responsible?

Social media platforms are seen by teens as places where they can express themselves, seek attention and popularity, and do so with abandon regardless of consequence. Education is required to move kids and teenagers toward private profiles as opposed to Public profiles and stop obsessing over followers. Police worldwide have been calling for this for 5 years, easier said than done.

However, although platforms such as Google have made the information easy to access, information accessed is not always positive or suitable for all age groups. Any simple search can return practically what you want to find – including information about committing suicide, pornography, weaponry, and how to commit a crime.

The internet has become a place where positive and negative interactions occur – and cyberbullying has become a serious issue amongst teens as the popularity of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp has increased – giving bullies the ability to virtually bully their victims, using their false profiles as a bush to hide behind.

Teens face many social issues online alone and feel helpless against them, parents are stressed and unable to help. This is where social media platforms need to step in and flag mentions of suicide, cyberbullying, and crime.

If they have the power to track our interests, likes, dislikes, and keywords we used to find products and services – then they can monitor indications of suicidal interest, online bullying, and criminal activity.

Instagram has promised to moderate, curate, and provide help where it can. 

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Encouraging healthy internet usage

However, even with parental controls in place, parents must help their children understand the importance of healthy internet use. It showed drastic measures and limited screen time to not be successful.

Children need to know that they can confide in their parents, school counsellors, and friends about negative thoughts or any negative interactions that they have online.

A new study conducted by Andrew Przybylski from the Oxford Internet Institute found that where kids exceed recommended screen time limits some display higher levels of positive well-being – proving the screen time is not negative.

His study was based on 20,000 children and his findings exposed the need for parents to create positive online experiences for their children. We can do this by using the internet with them, talking to them about the dangers of the internet and explaining what to do when they experience negativity online.

Furthermore, Przybylski noted that the current screen time limits prescribed by organisations such as the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) are outdated and were prescribed before devices became such intricate parts of our lives.

What can parents do to assist their children?

Parents can use parental controls featured in most anti-virus and online protection software to increase internet safety for children. These features include website blocking by types, such as adult content, weapons, violence, age-appropriate content and time limits per day and week. Furthermore, parents can prevent kids from overusing YouTube, Fortnite, and ROBLOX.

BeSecureOnline – Internet Safety for Kids and Teens

Keeping children safe online needs to be a joint effort. Social media platforms need to take action when mentions of suicide, cyberbullying and crime are picked up.

At the same time, parents need to engage with their children on topics such as internet safety, online reputation and what to do in times of crisis.

Our internet safety talks for kids and teens include all of these topics and we have had many great reviews from schools and parents.

Our internet safety talks are age-appropriate, fun and interactive. We make sure to present real-life stories to classes – helping them grasp how powerful the internet is and why they should make sure they stay safe.

We have had great reviews from schools and truly believe that by presenting facts in a fun and interactive way both kids and teens feel more informed and are therefore able to make better, healthier decisions online.

To find out more about our internet safety talks for kids or teens, please contact us

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Here is a link to a platform that has contact details for crisis hotlines throughout the UK  - if you feel or know of anyone feeling like their life has become too much for them, please make contact - you are never alone and suicide is not your only choice!

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