The health secretary needs to stop scapegoating technology companies and tackle sexting and cyber bullying through a government education scheme.
Cyber bullying, sexting and all other aspects of online life that cause teenagers misery may seem pretty complex and intractable problems. But not for Jeremy Hunt. Somehow, when not dealing with despairing junior doctors, he’s found the time to devise a simple solution to end them all.
In case you’ve missed it, the health secretary’s big idea to tackle the – very real – problems of sexting and cyber bullying is to call on social media and tech companies to ban them.
It is, Hunt seems to suggest, easy: “There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.”
He told the Commons health committee on suicide prevention efforts that he asks himself “why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18” and “why we can’t identify cyber bullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it”.
It’s possible when Hunt asks these questions to himself the answer sounds straightforward: we, the caring, compassionate government decree we want to protect our children, the people who do smart things do those smart things and make our will so – cyber bullying and sexting are solved. Hurrah!
Unfortunately Hunt doesn’t seem to know what he is talking about. Or maybe he does and doesn’t care because it’s a good soundbite and makes him sound tough on bad things and tough on the causes of bad things.
But outside of a totalitarian state, Hunt’s ideas are completely impractical.
The sexting issue
Some platforms like Snapchat are less secure, but analysing pictures in real time isn’t technically feasible yet. Even if it was, children could just switch to more secure services and tackling those would rely on breaking end-to-end encryption. Who knows, maybe that is the real aim, getting through a massive weakening of our security by the back door – it’s certainly a more coherent thought than doing it to stop sexting.
And even if you could monitor every image as it was sent, it would take mere seconds before someone just puts the pic on Dropbox and sends a link instead. Or there’s always another app.
Unfortunately the only parental control that really works is stopping your child from having a phone with a camera – good luck with that.
The cyber bullying
The idea of identifying bullying through word pattern recognition that cannot be circumvented is sadly laughable. While machine learning is progressing, its application to high level language is still limited to flagging potential issues for a humans to then evaluate. It is of no use in a real-time situation.
Children are particularly adept at creating new meanings and phrases to intimidate or coerce. No proscription of what can and cannot be said is going to stop that. Is the blanket censorship of non-approved communications for all under 18s – something that goes far further than the even the Great Firewall of China – really the kind of thing a government minister should be able to idly suggest in 2016?
Maybe this is all just an elaborate ruse from the MP for South West Surrey to try to prevent the perfectly legitimate use of the words “bell end” and Jeremy Hunt in the same sentence.
If the secretary of state for health is serious about protecting young people and the harm done to them by sexting and cyber bullying he needs to stop trying to scapegoat tech companies with unworkable solutions. Instead he should be pushing for his government to introduce proper sex education in schools to give children the skills to act in an informed and empowered manner.