Online harms exist but this concept has one small weakness
Rowland Manthorpe, Technology correspondent/ Sky News
The government is preparing an ambitious, world-leading plan to regulate swathes of the online world.
For once, the scheme has almost universal support; with the press, both main political parties and public opinion lined up to back it.Everyone agrees that something – something! – must be done about the ravages of “online harms”.
This umbrella term is used in government circles to describe all the bad things about the internet, from revenge porn to misogyny.
It’s a useful bit of jargon, because it draws in all the topics which swirl around, in our endless circling discussions about the way things are now.Social isolation, trolling, underage sexting… everything has its place in the landscape of harms.
The concept only has one small weakness, which at this late stage of the debate I am embarrassed to even mention; no-one knows exactly what a harm is.At first glance, this probably seems ridiculous. In 2019, the damage caused by the internet appears self-evident.But while it’s easy to cite examples, it’s far harder to point to evidence.
In most cases, all we can say for sure is that something is happening – and, sometimes, it’s hard to be certain about that.Take, for instance, cyberbullying.Speak to parents, and read reports in the media, and you’d get the impression that children are faced with an epidemic of cyberbullying.Pressure groups and charities condemn it; politicians inveigh against it.Yet when two leading researchers, Andrew Przybylski and Lucy Bowes, undertook the largest-ever study of cyberbullying in 2017, based on a representative sample of 120,115 adolescents, they concluded that children were far less likely to be victims of cyberbullying than traditional bullying, and that cyberbullying was not rising at a dramatic rate.
The campaign against it, Przybylski said, was a “panic”.Conversely, when harms are clear, it’s rarely obvious why.One of the most alarming recent trends is the sudden increase in self-harm among teenage girls.
Research published in 2017 showed it had risen by 68% in just three years, while remaining fairly constant among younger girls and boys.
Was this the malign effect of social media? The girls themselves and their parents thought so – but the evidence was shaky.
The same goes for numerous other issues, from phone addiction to the link between mental health and social media use. Theories abound, but harm isn’t measured in TED talks.For regulators looking to protect people from harms, this is a problem.Are we caught in a moral panic? Or are we failing to capture shifts that are simultaneously sweeping and subtle?
What makes our ignorance so frustrating is that the information is out there, if only public bodies could get their hands on it.We are in the middle of the greatest data-gathering exercise in the history of mankind, yet basic public questions are going unanswered because the data is retained for private benefit.