Calls are now being made for social media companies to be forced to hand over personal data in a bid to prevent teen suicides. While this is a serious issue, it remains unclear if handing over data is the right, or even useful thing to do. That’s before even taking into consideration the dangerous privacy precedent moves like this can set.
The data social media companies collect is enormous and powerful. Due to this, many companies, businesses, and even governments have been keen to gain access to the data. In some cases, access is not even needed due to the many data and privacy breaches that take place each year, putting a number of people at risk of identify theft, or worse. The securing of user data is rightfully a top priority for companies and consumers. Although an organization in the UK now wants these companies to hand over the data and fine tech companies who don’t comply.
The call comes from a recent report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK. One of the main government suggestions is to compel social media companies to hand over data to research institutions so they can better understand the link between social media use and suicide in younger users. One of the main problems here is the assumption that social media and suicide share a causal link. Not only is this a dangerous assumption to make, but if incorrect, it diverts resources towards a symptom instead of the underlying issue.
In reality, no company or service should be forced to hand over user data, especially when the data was given under a context of privacy. While there might be justifiable exceptions to any rule, a data request to see if there is a link is not the same as asking for data to affect change. For example, are people becoming more likely to commit suicide because of social media, or are people more likely to commit suicide turning to social media? There’s unlikely to be little argument from anyone on whether social media can affect someone, or make a situation worse. It can, and similar suggestions have been discussed recently in relation to the video gaming industry. However, in both the social media and video gaming instances, the narrative has looked to attribute blame to one area of a person’s life instead of taking a more holistic approach to the problem.
In fairness to Royal College of Psychiatrists, the report does touch on many of these points and issues separate guidance for younger users, parents, and the government. And therein is the reality of how problems like this need to be addressed. Social media companies should be doing more to ensure their service offers a safe environment to all of its users as they clearly are not currently. Therefore, any regulation or fines should be in relation to what a social media service is doing (or not doing) to better protect users from each other, and in some cases, themselves. Data is not the issue or fix here, responsibility of how services handle toxic content is, and that’s not something you need personal data to understand – just open a social media app and see how much toxic content there is.
Source: Royal College of Psychiatrists