By Zoe Williams
Now that the inquest into the awful death of Molly Russell in 2017 has delivered its findings, we have a new reality to adjust to. The teenager died from an act of self-harm, “while suffering depression and the negative effects of online content”. Her father described how she had entered “the bleakest of worlds”: online content on self-harm and suicide was delivered in waves by Instagram and Pinterest, just leaving it to the algorithm. “Looks like you’ve previously shown an interest in despair: try this infinitely replenishing stream of fresh despair.”
Social media platforms deliberately target users with content, seeking attention and therefore advertising revenue: we knew that. This content can be extremely damaging: we knew that, too. But surely now that we’ve struggled, falteringly, towards the conclusion that it can be deadly, there can be no more complacency. These are corporations like any other, and it’s time to build on the consensus that they cause harm by regulating, as we would if they were producing toxic waste and pumping it into paddling pools.
People, parents especially, worry a lot about the digital age and its impact on teenagers, and a lot of those worries are nonsense: are they addicted to Fifa? Will Minecraft turn them into recluses or sever their connection with the natural world? Does Fortnite stop them reading books (in fact, yes, but some other time for that)? Sometimes you’ll get a useful correction from a specialist in addiction or adolescence but there isn’t a coherent pushback from tech giants, because these anxieties create exactly the debate they need, amorphous and essentially luddite in character: what if today’s kids are less resilient than yesterday’s because they were raised in a world with different stimuli? If the real threat to kids is modernity itself, it can never be addressed, it can only be discussed.
Underneath all that noise is a persistent drumbeat, an agenda now well known, pursued by methods that have been widely studied. Any platform that is free to use exists to maximise its advertising revenue, which means chasing watchers and watch-time. The algorithms suggesting content are not designed to prioritise quality or relevance, but rather to take an existing interest in any given user and direct them, in Molly Russell’s case, to more extreme versions of it. This had the tragic outcome with Molly that she was bombarded by more and more explicit explorations of misery, such that the coroner, Andrew Walker, said: “It would not be safe to leave suicide as a conclusion.” We cannot seal off a death from despair as an individual act when there are global corporations unrestrainedly marketing despair.
The problem goes far beyond young people: we can see algorithm impacts in nativist politics all over the world, and in that regard, youth is not the defining factor – indeed, the casual characterisation of youth as a state of vulnerability is its own blind alley. Nevertheless, there are two elements that make social media particularly influential on the young, and the behemoths of the field particularly culpable in their failure to address the problem. As Laura Bates notes in Men Who Hate Women, her detailed research into the “manosphere”, the social media coverage of Gen Z is astronomical: 85% of US teens use YouTube, 72% use Instagram, 51% still use Facebook. People spend significantly more time watching content that’s been recommended than stuff they’ve gone looking for: on YouTube, 70% of everything watched has been suggested by the site.