The UK government is mulling over penalising tech companies for cyber-bullying, especially of children—to the tune of almost 4% of their global annual revenue. The country had initially thought of asking tech companies to voluntarily contribute to campaigns against cyber-bullying and social media abuse, but after what was allegedly a cold response from companies, the UK wants to institute pinching penalties to get them to act. However, apart from the fact that penalising a tech company is no solution—cyber-bullying will exist independent of whichever social media/tech company one picks up—the move is not going to result in the desired, and indeed, desirable ends.
To be sure, there is a desperate need to crackdown on online trolling and targeted abuse of individuals. In the UK, for instance, a survey found that half of 11-18-year-old girls and more than 40% of similarly aged boys faced online abuse and bullying. Psychologists agree such bullying is likely to leave lasting psychological damage on an individual, especially if she or he is of a tender age. The UK proposal plans to force tech companies into getting serious about parental consent—that is, actually making sure that young users have a parent’s informed consent about being on a social media website. The rampant violation of companies’ rule on this is evident from Facebook’s example—as far back as 2011, it reportedly had 7.5 million users who were under the age of 13 years, the threshold age at which Facebook allows someone to sign up. Yet, the problem isn’t just Facebook’s safeguards—the company has been working on curbing cyber-bullying, though the current mechanism relies more on user-reporting than any active screening and identification, and also offers support to users who face bullying—it is parents’ attitude, too. A recent survey showed that a quarter of parents surveyed had consented to their under-13 children having social media accounts. While the UK proposal is spot on in its intent to get companies to review parental consent, fining companies means that the responsibility is shifted from the parents’ shoulders.