Hannah Smith: legislation is no solution to bullying

Restricting social-media websites will not stop the sad and thankfully rare deaths of bullied teenagers.

Ben Lazarus

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Topics Science & Tech

In recent weeks, we have witnessed the creation of a moral panic following the abuse dispensed by a few sad, lonely Twitter trolls; now, however, it is not just Twitter that is coming under intense scrutiny.

The website Ask.fm, which is ranked as the tenth most popular social-media site, is used to post questions, which can then be answered by anonymous users. Unsurprisingly, this can escalate from ‘should Wazza be sold to Chelsea’, to sexual questions, and then, rather predictably, to more sinister topics. In the case of Hannah Smith – the schoolgirl who was found hanged on Friday in Lutterworth, Leicestershire – she was viciously ‘cyber-bullied’ on the site.

Any suicide is unquestionably sad, particularly that of someone so young. However, it is too simplistic to place the blame solely at the doorstep of a website and its owners. Not only does such a debate absolve the bullies themselves, but it could justify unnecessary restrictions on our freedom.

On Tuesday, Hannah’s father, Dave Smith, called for the creators of the website to be prosecuted for manslaughter, the site to be closed down, and for UK prime minister David Cameron to enact legislation that will increase internet surveillance to stop ‘cyber-bullying’.

Such a reaction itself is not surprising; indeed, after experiencing tragedies, people tend to search for answers, for action that would give some meaning to a loved one’s death. For Dave Smith, his focus is seemingly solely on internet controls. What is surprising, however, is that David Cameron today called for a boycott of the websites linked to teenage cyber-bullying, stating: ‘If the websites don’t clean up their act then we as members of the general public have got to stop using these sites and boycott them.’

Greater state intervention of the internet, is not, however, the solution. Ask.fm currently employs 50 moderators to monitor postings on its site. Perhaps, in the circumstances, it should consider employing a few more. But it is not the site itself, nor the internet, that creates these vituperative creatures that sit beyond their keyboards and abuse individuals.

Bullies have always existed, and they always will. Sadly, there will always be some people who pick on those that are perceived as weaker or unusual. And in the case of Hannah Smith, she was, undoubtedly a troubled individual, stating on her own Ask.fm page that she had previously tried to commit suicide.

At one time, bullying was confined to the playground, yet with the rise of the internet, it is not surprising that it is acted out in cyberspace as well. This is not something that the government can legislate about effectively. While the mainstream media and David Cameron may vent anger at the two Latvian owners of the website, asking for the state to intrude further into our cyber-life, it would be better to discuss the climate of bullying, unkindness and viciousness that exists today.

This is summed up well by the Ask.Fm co-founder, Mark Terebin, who, after previously coming under public scrutiny after another teenage suicide in 2012, stated: ‘Mass media is knocking on wrong door. It is necessary to go deeper and to find a root of a problem. It’s not about the site, the problem is about education, about moral values that were devaluated lately. Ask.fm is just a tool which helps people to communicate with each other, same as any other social network, same as phone, same as piece of paper and pen. Don’t blame a tool, but try to make changes… start with yourself… be more polite, more kind, more tolerant of others… cultivate these values in families, in schools.’

Quite. Hannah Smith’s death is a tragedy. Let’s treat it as that – not, as the prime minister and the mainstream media would have you believe, as an invitation for even more government intervention into our day-to-day lives.

Ben Lazarus is a recent politics graduate at the University of Bristol and is currently interning at spiked. He tweets at @BLazarus1.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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