Warning this article mentions suicide.
On this World Mental Health Day, I would like to ask the question:
As education shapes our view of the world, should the changing realities of that world not shape our view of education?
According to Lifeline, 8.6 Australians resort to suicide every day. More than double the road toll! The majority of these sadly departed souls are currently men. But, as social media algorithms become ever more manipulative and increasingly dangerous, this has started to change.
Molly Russell, took her own life at the tender age of 14 after falling into a vortex of despair on social media. There’s an insidious dark ghetto in the online world that once entered cannot easily be escaped. Much of Molly’s social media activity in the last two months of her life reflected the interests of a typical vivacious teenager: Music. Fashion. Harry Potter. Jewellery. But after her death a far more disturbing reality emerged. In the six months prior to her death, more than two thousand items of content saved, liked or shared by Molly on Instagram, were related to suicide, self-harm or depression. Six months! Think about how many opportunities for positive intervention were missed! In his court testimony, the attendant consultant child psychologist said he couldn’t sleep properly after viewing the Instagram content looked at by Molly just before her death.
So just how dangerous are your algorithms? The answer comes down to what you like looking at. Social media algorithms are designed to identify what you like and deliver more of it to you. And they’re getting more and more sophisticated and better and better at it. But for all their complexity and monkey cleverness these algorithms continue to make no distinction between healthy and unhealthy content. In a post entitled “Everything you need to know about social media” sproutsocial.com writes:
“By default, social media algorithms take the reins of determining which content to deliver to you based on your behaviour”. https://tinyurl.com/mr3mtapk
The world is taking an unforgivably long time to wake up to the fact that, in the case of vulnerable emotionally developing teenagers, the status quo is repeatedly proving to be deadly.
For the first time a coroner has directly implicated social media in the cause of death. In relation to Molly’s case Coroner Andrew Walker wrote: “Molly Rose Russell died from an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content.”
Molly Russell’s family is devastated. As were the families of adolescents Dolly Everett who died in 2018 and Tilly Rosewarne who suicided earlier this year. There are many more who did not make the news. Mushrooming cases of cyber bullying are rendered more dangerous or even potentially lethal for a number of obvious reasons:
- Generally inadequate protections.
- Absent, weak or hopelessly outdated regulation.
- The almost criminal absence of a reasonable duty of care.
If we do not take immediate action to dramatically change the status quo, toxic content and dark manipulative algorithms will actively fuel the growing problem of teen suicide by driving more and more vulnerable young people beyond the point of no return. The harsh reality is we are in the midst of a global mental health pandemic. And information technology is at least partially responsible. Unlike infections caused by viruses and bacteria, toxic psychopathology leaps through cyberspace crossing borders and time zones in nanoseconds. Social media now spreads information much faster than broadcast television, radio or print media.
Mental illness affects everyone. All ages, genders, income levels, religious groups and ethnicities are vulnerable. A recent news broadcast broke with the news that a fresh-faced teen soldier, House Cavalryman Jack Burnell-Williams, who recently accompanied the Queen’s coffin, had died. A statement regarding the circumstances of his passing said there were “no suspicious circumstances”. I can’t comment directly on the specifics of this particular case. What I can say is that “no suspicious circumstances” has become an increasingly popular euphemism and placeholder for suicide. The cruel irony of a society in which the mainstream news outlets conscientiously avoid using the very word “suicide” for fear that it might inadvertently encourage copycat behaviour, while social media continues to deliver a dark torrent of bleak, depressing content to moody vulnerable teenagers is almost too ridiculous and painful to bear.
Our ever-changing technologically fluid world connects us in more ways than we have ever been and yet, paradoxically, according to multiple research studies we feel lonelier and more disconnected than ever. Millions are suffering in lonely silence.
Molly, Dolly, Tilly and Jack deserved better!
So what can we do?
- Go where the sad and lonely eyes are. We need to make help and light as easily accessible on social media channels as the dark, depressing and dangerous content is. There is no getting away from having to fish where the fish are. We have to go out onto the streets of that dark metaphorical cyber-ghetto to meet and save our sons and daughters in the shadows where their eyes are.
- Social media must be regulated as it is obviously unable or unwilling to regulate itself. I’m not advocating censorship. I am simply calling for a measure of balance. One simple solution would be to adjust the algorithms to send up a red flag when a user consistently consumes large amounts of dark and potentially dangerous content. Purveyors and pushers of content can now slice and dice data down to fine detail. Surely it must be a simple thing for them to tell us when we are overdoing dark and dangerous material. The least they could do is ask if we’re ok. The tin your baked beans came in will tell you how much salt is in it. But you can binge on dangerous content, just like Molly Russell did, without receiving any caution or warning at all. Dark and depressing content should at least be counterbalanced by posts offering help and education. Under the Liquor Act 1992, it is an offence to sell or supply liquor to an unduly intoxicated person. What about continuing to supply dangerously depressed people with dark depressing content?
The tragically passed young people whose names I have mentioned here may have been young, inexperienced and impressionable but they weren’t stupid! If we had taught them the basic principles of psychological hygiene along with how to recognise when they were being manipulated they would have understood that just like bad weather, shadows on the soul pass eventually. They would have been empowered to make better choices. Wellness for Educators
- Psychological education needs to be an integral part of general education -starting right now. And not just for adults and teenagers. According to the world renowned Dunedin Longitudinal Study conducted to my alma mater, The University of Otago, positive intervention and the teaching of basic psychological hygiene can make a difference and should start in kindergarten!
We are taught to wash our hands, clean our teeth, exercise and eat more green vegetables. When it comes to looking after our mental health what are we taught? Nothing. Zilch. Zip. Zero. Nought. That’s one of the reasons why the tide of Mental Illness was rising alarmingly long before Covid turned it into a tsunami.