It has given a voice to a generation, and helped unite people and communities far and wide. But social media is not always used as a force for good. In recent years, the misuse of social media has resulted in children and young people becoming both the perpetrators and victims of crime. As can been seen in the recent case of Felix Alexander – a teenager who took his own life after being bullied online.
Cyber-bullying is not, currently, a specific crime. But depending on the circumstances, and the age of the defendant, it can potentially be tried in a Crown Court – with a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment.
Online mob-type behaviour has also been the target of recent Crown Prosecution Service guidance – whereby inciting people to harass others online, known as virtual mobbing, could result in individuals being charged with encouraging an offence. If found guilty, they could be sent to prison.
Have a voice?
As predicated by US supreme court Judge Justice John Paul Stevens back in 1997, social media has allowed anyone to become a “town crier, with a voice that resonates further than it would from a soap box”. But social media users are not subject to the same “filters” as the traditional media – meaning there is often little, or no editorial control over what is published.
This can mean that what was once a casual comment or expression of emotion – shared with friends or family – can now become formalised and permanent, blurring the boundaries of online and offline life.
Employers now routinely “screen” applicants’ online profiles before deciding to hire candidates. So for young people, who have grown up with social media and a “life online”, this can mean their childhood activity could influence a future employer’s recruitment decision. Despite this, it is clear that social media users are increasingly oblivious to the risks generated by their relationship with it.
This is illustrated by the case of Paris Brown. Aged 17, Paris was the first Youth Police Crime Commissioner. But after just six days on the job, she resigned from her role over comments she had posted on twitter when she was as young as 14 which critics claimed could have been interpreted as homophobic and racist.
In an interview, she admitted to having “fallen into a trap of behaving with bravado on social networking sites”, but denied she held these views. A Google search for “Paris Brown” today still lists, within the top five results, a Daily Mail article from 2013 calling her “foul-mouthed” and “offensive”. This could follow Paris for the rest of her career.
Given all of this, it is my belief that social media education should be treated with the same level of importance as sex education. And as adults, educators, and employers, we need to take some responsibility in educating our children on the “birds and the bees” of social media use – because it has the potential to do serious damage to young people’s future’s and prospects.
Children today engage with social media at a young age, so the responsible use of it needs to be built into the curriculum at primary school level. As children progress through their education – what they are taught can evolve.
This means that from being made aware of issues such as their personal security and safety, they can move on to learning about how they could find themselves on the wrong side of the criminal and civil law for what they post or tweet. And how their online profiles can influence their job prospects – both negatively and positively.
Because in this modern age we live and work in today, this type of training could make a real difference to the futures of children and young people – both online and off.