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Social-media firms are failing to protect children from harmful content online, says bishop

07 February 2019

Companies need the pressure of ‘heavy fines’, says Bishop Treweek


SOCIAL-MEDIA companies are too “lazy, reluctant, and big” to protect children properly from harmful content online, and should be held responsible by stronger legislation, including fines, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, has said.

Bishop Treweek, the Church’s lead bishop on social media, told Radio 4’s Sunday programme that recent steps taken by Facebook, which owns Instagram, to make it harder for people to search for and see self-harm content online “helps; but companies need to be held responsible for when they don’t remove harmful content.

“In the same way that we enable children and young people to navigate the ‘offline world’, such as how to cross a road safely and live in public spaces, we need to be doing the same with the online world. I do not believe companies are doing enough. They are also not enabling young people to take responsibility for themselves.”

Young people had expressed to her a desire to report harmful content themselves, she said, but they did not want social media to be “demonised”, either.

“We can easily demonise social media and the use of iPhones, but really it is about the responsibility to live that online and offline world well, and [to] enable young people do that. Social-media companies need to play their part in that; there is a laziness, a reluctance to look at how they can make this safer, because they are big, and, therefore, how much do they really want to grapple with this?”

In Germany, companies received “heavy fines” if they did not remove content within a specified time-period, she said. “We need those pressures on companies as well. . . We do need more legislation.”

Her thoughts echoed those of the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, who told the House of Lords last month: “The internet is a public space. Indeed, for children and young people it is the public space. This means that regulation and guidance to make the internet safe by design are all the more necessary. . . It is the lack of regulation that makes it dangerous and debilitating.” (Comment, 25 January).

The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, is due to release a White Paper on internet safety later this year. On Safer Internet Day, on Tuesday, the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, Margot James, said that the Government would make it illegal for pornographic websites to be accessible without proof of age.

“Adult content is currently far too easily available on the internet, and our children deserve better than this,” she said. “I want this year to be the year in which we collectively stand against online harms and the dark side of social media. There is a great deal to be done. We will be setting out our plans for new laws to tackle a full range of online harms and set clear responsibilities for technology companies.”

More than 2000 technology companies, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter, and dozens of charities, are supporting Safer Internet Day.

The initiative comes after the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, wrote to the leading companies about Molly Russell, who took her own life, aged 14, in November 2017, after reportedly viewing on social media images of self-harm and other content on anxiety, depression, and suicide. Molly’s father, Ian Russell, said that Instagram “helped kill my daughter”.

On Wednesday, Mr Russell questioned why her family was not now able to see data of Molly’s that is held by tech companies. He said in a BBC interview that his daughter had died at 14 and had left no will, and that her data ought to be returned to her family. “We need to find out what drove her to that final decision, that encouraged her to take her life at the end,” he said.


An inquest will be held later this year.

The Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, said that, while the internet was an “amazing resource” for learning, it posed “serious and real dangers” for children. The Government was, therefore, making relationships education compulsory in all primary schools, and relationships and sex education compulsory in all secondary schools.

“Teachers will address online safety and appropriate behaviour in a way that is relevant to pupils’ lives,” he said. “All children will be taught about online friendships as well as to face-to-face relationships. I want children to understand that the same rules of good behaviour and kindness that they are taught in the playground also apply online.”

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