Where Are Social Media’s Seat Belts?

In 2011, 15-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons was allegedly raped by four teenaged boys who were never charged or prosecuted for the crime.

One of those teenaged boys shared a photo of the incident with friends online. The photo was distributed widely among their school community and beyond.

As a result, Parsons faced intense bullying on Facebook and other social media. Boys would anonymously proposition her. Girls accused her of being a slut. She was repeatedly slandered.

Unable to further bear the ceaseless assault, last week Parsons hung herself in the bathroom of her family’s home.

If the story sounds familiar, that’s not surprising.

It was only last October that Amanda Todd’s suicide drew our attention to the perils of unregulated social media use. She also took her own life after facing intense online bullying as a result of a sexual assault.

Who’s next? Perhaps the 16-year-old girl from Steubenville, Ohio, who was drugged and brutally gang raped by members of the local high school football team last year. As with the other incidents, pictures were spread via social media.

Chances are, social media will kill her too.

Some might argue that we can’t blame social media, or even Facebook specifically, for these tragedies. It’s simply the way that we use social media that causes problems.

But that would be the same argument that automobile manufacturers used regarding the safety shortcomings of their vehicles in the 1950s: cars didn’t kill people, it was instead the way that people used cars.

However, scientific evidence proved that automobiles of that era were not designed with even a pretence of safety. Instead, it was all about speed, style, and personal prestige.

As a result, accidents and death were common and widespread. And they were directly attributable to the design and manufacturing methods of the automobiles themselves.

Despite this, automobile makers fought every attempt to make cars safe. They even refused to provide customers with what we now consider to be the single most essential aspect of automotive safety, the seat belt.

It took tireless public safety crusader Ralph Nader and his book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” combined with an outpouring of public support and a deeply-shamed US federal government to force the automotive industry to address the health and safety interests of its customers.

Today’s social media industry is the modern equivalent of the 1950s automotive industry. Driven purely by profit solely to stoke our egos, it ignores the social perils inherent in the products of its manufacture. A Facebook friend count is the modern equivalent of the 1959 Cadillac’s Eldorado’s massive tail fins.

Companies like Facebook certainly must recognize the damage to young people that their products enable — how can they possibly ignore their direct contributions to the suicides of teenage girls? But, like the automakers of the last century that sat idly by as customers spilled their blood on the US’s new freeways, they resist doing anything to address or resolve the clear and present threats to their customers’ well being.

And it’s unlikely that they ever will.

So until a social media safety crusader arrives on the scene and inspires legislators to find sufficient cojones to address this important public safety issue, we’ll have to take it on ourselves.

And well we should.

As with any issue of this nature, it’s up to members in a community to open their eyes and address it head on.

After all, would you want your your son to rape a girl this weekend and post trophy pics to his Facebook wall?

Would you want your daughter to be the victim, forever tarred and feathered by an event she could never have prevented?

Then in six months or a year would we all want to face her suicide?

Rather than wait to become a community in mourning, why don’t we become a community that proactively rallies to recognize, address, and prevent a tragedy like this?

Just as cars were made safe, we can make social media safe. Fortunately, we don’t need to be engineers or lawmakers to do this.

We just need to be humans. We just need to set aside our collective ignorance of social media and rise above the fear that we have of Facebook.

A great starting point is education. First ourselves, then our kids.

Make the web site Common Sense Media a staple of your online diet.

Then read, “Talking Back to Facebook.” Its author, James P. Steyer, is the closest thing we have to Ralph Nader on this issue.

Next, establish terms, conditions, rules, and regulations around social media.

Then the hard part: enforce them.

But, you know, everything about raising kids is hard. Somehow, though, we all regularly rise to the occasion. We just need to throw social media and its accoutrements, like iPads, mobile phones and webcams, into the mix.

It’s naturally our job to help children avoid splattering themselves all over the pavement of the information superhighway.

We have to be the seat belts of social media.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, April 12, 2013.