A View from the House

8th February 2019

Brexit continues to dominate the headlines and the House of Commons remains utterly divided on what the withdrawal deal should look like. But while Mrs May’s deal, as it stands, does not command a majority in the House of Commons - MPs have seemingly been unified by the view that social media platforms can no longer be trusted to self-regulate.

I do not suggest that the internet has not transformed democracy for the better. It allows me to interact with my constituents during the days I am in Westminster representing the views of Sutton Coldfield. Through the internet I can update my website regularly and receive emails on a daily basis from constituents asking for help as well as emails offering views on topical debates on a variety of national matters, all of which I take into account when I vote. This swift communication and exchange of views depends entirely upon the internet.

Yet, the tragic case Molly Russell has been a poignant reminder that the internet also has an ugly side. It has been a little over a year since 14-year-old Molly Russell took her own life. Her mother found her on a Tuesday morning, motionless in her bedroom before she was due to leave for school – it was also the moment her parents found out she had been fighting severe depression. She had shown no obvious signs of mental ill health and even spent the night before with her family watching I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here.

Molly’s family, understandably desperate for answers, went through her internet browsing history. Her Instagram profile showed that she was visiting pages that encouraged self-harm, linking depression to self-harm and to suicide, making it even seem normal.

This is not an isolated case. Since Molly’s father came forward accusing Instagram of using algorithms which encouraged Molly to view increasingly distressing material, dozens of other families have contacted the suicide prevention charity Papyrus to reveal that they believe social media was a factor in the deaths of their children too.

Four years ago - I, alongside Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb MP and Alistair Campbell for Labour, launched an All-Party campaign to promote mental health which subsequently secured an additional £600m from the Government to be spent on mental health services.

Since then, the Government has gone even further: As part of the five-year NHS funding offer, mental health services will receive an additional £2 billion per year which will fund new mental health crisis services in every major A&E, alongside new young peoples’ crisis teams across the country. The additional funding will also deliver more mental health ambulances and a 24-hour mental health crisis hotline for those in urgent need of help.

But it would clearly be wrong to say that suicide is a mental health issue and that if we just spend a little more money, it will all go away. The case of Molly Russell has led to the realisation that the responsibility of suicide prevention cannot be solely placed on the Government. Nor can it be right that graphic images of self-harm can be viewed by children as young as 13. Social media companies have some of the best technological expertise at their disposal and it is perfectly reasonable for them to use this to help tackle what is one of the biggest challenges in our society.

The complacency of social media platforms have been left unchallenged for far too long, merely offering anaemic assurances that “content that promotes self-harm or suicide violates our community guidelines and is removed when we are made aware of it”. Others have even cited free speech as a defence.

That is why I welcome the Government white paper, due to be published this month, which will set out plans under which social media companies would have to sign up to a code of practice and face fines from a regulator if they did not take down harmful posts swiftly enough. I understand that one option being considered would even go so far as to hold Executives of social media companies personally liable for non-compliance.

I do not suggest that social media is the root cause of depression or anxiety – mental illnesses are complex - but we can all agree that suicide has a devastating impact on families left behind and that there is much at stake if we fail to protect our children from the harm that can be caused by online content. Social media providers must not be allowed to hide behind the guise of ‘free speech’ while reaping the profits by operating in a moral and legal grey area without the onus of responsibility. How these platforms should be regulated will be contentious for sure but I, for one, think that this national debate is long overdue.