As a 15 year old in the UK, I have watched the debate about the government’s Online Safety Bill with some interest.
Online safety lessons have been a regular feature of my school life for as long as I can remember. Each year we have attended assemblies and received lessons about how to stay safe online. While these lessons are somewhat useful reminders of what we can do to help ourselves, it often seems that we ourselves are the only defence against the dangers. No one ever showed any interest in holding anybody else responsible for the damage that can be wrought online.
A Kent teenager responds to the Online Safety Bill
I have seen my friends drawn into awful situations over and over again. Girls as young as 13 under pressure to share compromising pictures of themselves, being stalked and harassed by bullies and trolls and, worst of all, falling prey to ‘county lines’ drugs gangs. I know from adult friends and family, that there is barely a woman alive in the UK who hasn’t received unsolicited pornographic messages. I have made the personal decision to delete most forms of social media from my phone, but this excludes me from a lot of social interaction and it feels unfair.
So, I broadly welcome new laws which aim to protect people from online harm, especially young people. But the law has its critics too.
The new law will give responsibility for dealing with harmful material to social media platforms, such as Instagram and TikTok: companies which up until now have dismissed any idea that they are liable for content on their platforms. For young audiences, the duty is to remove ‘harmful’ content.
While some people worry about the definition of ‘harm’, the government flags up likely target material as being disinformation, pornography or material which promotes eating disorders or self-harm, or those which enable targeted bullying. The government can add further categories of ‘harmful’ content through further legislation.
Some people have expressed concerns about freedom of speech, claiming that the bill is draconian, and gives too many powers to ministers in determining future ‘harmful’ material. When I talk to my friends and classmates about this though, we think that our safety should be the priority for lawmakers. Free speech has never been an absolute right, nor freely available to all; the internet offered us the chance to see what free speech can do, but my friends and I are weary of being the victims of this experiment.
Internet negativity = unhappiness
Now it is time to learn lessons about its dangers. Teenage mental health has never been such an issue as it is right now and research suggests that relentlessness of internet negativity is a key source of our unhappiness. I am confident that democracy will not be seriously undermined by asking billion-dollar companies to keep children safe.