On 4 February 2024, a brave and compassionate mother, Esther Ghey, whose 15 year old daughter Brianna had been murdered by two other children of the same age called for “a law [to be] introduced so that there are mobile phones that are only suitable for under-16s”. Brianna’s murder had been meticulously planned by via internet research, and discussed at length over direct messaging.
A descent into darkness
One of Brianna’s murderers, a girl, had a fascination for ‘real’ torture and murder videos, which she had freely accessed on her phone, on the ‘dark web’. Computer expert Professor Alan Woodward told the trial that once on this search engine, the algorithms she created via her browsing may have led her to increasingly violent and explicit content.
Her psychological report proposed that while “high functioning and intelligent”, she had a “severe conduct-dissocial disorder with limited pro-social emotions”. She had been threatened with expulsion by a previous school for giving other children cannabis ‘gummies’ and had consequently been moved to the school that Brianna attended. The evidence suggested that she had originated the idea of murdering one of the other teenagers she knew, not necessarily Brianna, and had led the planning process.
The other murderer, a boy, became friendly with his co-defendant at the secondary school she had initially attended. He appeared to have a hatred of transgender people like Brianna, but did not know her well, as they did not attend the same school. He had a history of social difficulties and was diagnosed with autism and, since his arrest, selective mutism.
Brianna, by contrast, was outgoing and popular, moving towards becoming an influencer on social media, with thousands of followers viewing her makeup tutorials. But in real life, she suffered with anxiety and an eating disorder. After Brianna died, Esther became aware that she had been accessing self-harm and pro-anorexia websites.
Esther describes the internet as a “Wild West” environment, which negatively impacted upon Brianna’s life, and, through the online activities of her murderers, played a significant role in her tragic death. It could in fact be argued, that in this case, the internet became an unwitting accessory to murder.
The internet on trial
During the same week Esther expressed her concerns about teenagers on the internet, Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg gave evidence to the US Congressional Hearing on alleged internet harm caused to children. He commented:
“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through … No one should go through the things that your families have suffered and this is why we invest so much and we are going to continue doing industry-wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer.”
However, what he didn’t mention is that social scientists and journalists, including myself, have been raising potential harms done to children on the internet for many years. My first chapter on this topic was written over 2007, the year after the first iPhone was marketed. This was followed by several subsequent chapters and articles over the years, the most recent being an article in Yorkshire Bylines.
In spring 2017, I commented in The Psychologist:
“… over the past decade, young people have been recruited into a mass social experiment at a highly vulnerable stage of their development … this may have negative effects upon lifelong mental health, potentially creating an insidious anxiety”.
Why the specific concern about teenagers?
The answer lies in the biological basis of teenage developmental vulnerability. Recent scientific advances have discovered human beings are not fully neuronally adult until their mid-20s. In particular, when the hormone surges of puberty are taking place, the brain undertakes its final major construction project in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that mediates adult social behaviour, which produces the volatile emotions that are so commonly experienced at this developmental stage. The result is heightened self-consciousness, reduced sensitivity to the feelings of others and increased tendencies towards risky behaviour to incur admiration.
After her conviction the girl who murdered Brianna admitted to stabbing her many times, despite initially pleading not guilty.
The judge expressed suspicion that this was because “having been convicted, now [she] wants to paint herself in as bad a light as possible”, adding that such a dramatic change of narrative was likely to be rooted within the defendant’s obsession with notorious serial killers – a desire to become as (in)famous as those she had researched on the dark web.
Adolescents are far more vulnerable than adults to being deeply influenced by the communications and images they access online. While this child was unusual in her identification with sadistic murderers, many young women more typically identify with those seeking impossible ‘Barbie doll’ beauty, and when they inevitably fail, become vulnerable to self-harm. This fascination may then be shared online with others, raising the risk of mental breakdown and suicide, particularly if bullying arises within these online conversations.
Whilst teenagers have always been prone to bully one another due to intense emotions during this developmental stage, the capacity to bully on social media is endless. Whereas previous generations could find sanctuary in their homes and bedrooms, online bullying is always present, via an infinitely accessible device which, through the brain’s dopamine pathways, is prone to create addiction in human beings of all ages.
A ’ping’ from a phone that informs us that others are seeking contact raises levels of dopamine and oxytocin within the physical brain. In fact, human neuronal responses to message notification sounds from networked devices resemble animal responses within operant conditioning contingencies. For teenagers, desperate to be liked and admired by others, and willing to take risks to achieve popularity amongst peers, this effect is heightened.
Additionally, the internet draws us into an arena which processes expressed personal interests into algorithms in order to offer up endless further information. On social media, algorithims prompt us to make contact with others who share those interests. For teenagers with personally owned networked devices, this process most usually occurs without any input from adults.
Esther Ghey said her daughter “had been very protective over her phone, which had caused arguments. If she couldn’t have accessed the [self-harm and anorexia] sites, she wouldn’t have suffered as much”.
Why are young women particularly at risk?
In 2016, a pre-Tik-Tok world, I described several of the insecurities that impact on contemporary teenage mental health that were not so prevalent in their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. In order to do this ethically, I created a vignette about a fictional 15 year old called Rachel, drawn from interviews I had undertaken with young women over 18 talking about their earlier teenage experiences of social media.
“Sometimes it feels like [Rachel] can never get away from people, not only those who want to be nasty to her, but others who want answers to the homework, or older boys she doesn’t want to block because it would be uncool, but whose messages sometimes make her feel vaguely uncomfortable.”
Nothing has changed in this respect over the intervening eight years, and in fact, as technology has become more sophisticated, reported events have become increasingly alarming.
For example, in January 2024, a girl under 16 alleged that she had been virtually ‘gang raped’ in Zuckerberg’s Metaverse, and it was reported that children are now the biggest perpetrators of sexual abuse against other children.
A month before this, The Guardian reported that it had been discovered that “thousands of children in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were watching and/or sharing ‘the most abhorrent’ images of child abuse”.
In March 2023, there were myriad reports of misogynistic social influencer Andrew Tate’s powerful influence over teenage boys whilst a new report reveals social media algorithms are rapidly amplifying and normalising misogynistic content amongst the young.
Towards a solution
It is clear that Esther Ghey can call upon copious evidence, not only her daughter’s tragic murder, to underpin her call for children’s access of social media to be regulated.
The fact that social scientists, journalists and governments have been calling upon multi-national corporations to manage this process for at least 15 years, and have met with many promises, but no effective action indicates that this is not an achievable route in the short term. These companies operate outside the boundaries of national legislation, so compelling them to take action is not a possibility.
There are many hazards for children in society; for example, being harmed by fast vehicles whose speeds they are not mature enough to judge; being burned by hot surfaces; drinking alcohol, ingesting or smoking harmful substances. The usual way that we deal with this, as responsible adults, is to remove the child from the source of harm rather than banning or regulating the object so it becomes harmless.
I would suggest the most obvious way to immediately deal with the issue at hand is to follow this solution. It would be quite possible for a nation to legislate to prevent children from owning personal networked devices, thereby restricting their access to the internet to devices owned and administered by adults, whilst making ‘child phones’ available to them, which are limited to calls and texts.
To avoid creating social unrest, the restriction could be rolled out in a similar fashion to the proposed smoking legislation, initially applying to children under ten (given that the majority of children own a smartphone by the time they are eleven). The age at which children are permitted to own a personal networked device would then progress by steps over a five or six year period, reaching its fullest extent when children are prevented from personally owning a networked device until their 15th or 16th birthday.
A critical responsibility
In any human society, there is an essential adult responsibility to protect children from objects and experiences that, whilst part of everyday adult life, may be harmful to them in their current developmental stage. We now know that there is a strong case to be made to place unmonitored access to the internet within this frame.
There will, of course, be many ideas about how such protection can be achieved. The above suggestion is just one. The main point is to begin having national and international conversations with a view to agreed action within the next three to five years. As Carole Cadwalladr points out, dead – and mentally damaged – children must never be a cost we are prepared to accept as ‘the price of doing business’.