Social Media: Is it a path to violence and murder?

By - CTL
April 4, 2018

By Dorothy Thompson.

Social media sites are driving children to commit violence and murders “within minutes”, Britain’s most senior police officer has warned.

This week Ms. Cressida Dick, London’s Metropolitan Police commissioner has drawn our attention to the increasing threat that she believes social media has become amongst our children.

In an interview with The Times she discussed the fact that often trivial disputes between young people were escalating into murder and stabbings at unprecedented rates, as the goading of rivals on online message boards and video sites “revs people up” and normalizes violence.

The speed at which disputes gathered pace echoes the way in which some Islamists, including the perpetrator of the lorry attack in Nice in 2016, were radicalised within days or weeks.

A febrile online atmosphere is among factors responsible for rising knife crime. Also to blame are drug dealing, absent fathers and socio- economics, Ms. Dick said.

Sound familiar? Andrew Scipione, NSW’s top police officer in the week that he retired told an inquiry into human trafficking by the NSW Parliament Chairman Paul Green, that Facebook was a harbor for criminals, including drug gangs and paedophile rings to evade detection.

Likening it to a lawless superpower that has more people than any country on earth without proper policing. In further testimony before the inquiry Mr. Scipione’s said Facebook has 2.3 billion active users — more than the population of China, the world’s most populous country with 1.37 billion people.

“Any nation has boundaries, it has highways, there are police that patrol highways, there are police that patrol precincts — they keep people safe,” he said. “(Facebook) doesn’t have any police force.”

Ms. Dick also remarked that: “Violence is on the increase across the United Kingdom. Earlier this week a 36-year-old woman became the tenth person to be stabbed to death in London in 17 days”. Police believe her death has been linked to social media rage.

Fatal stabbings in England and Wales are at their highest level since 2010-11. There were 215 homicides involving a knife or other sharp instrument in the year to March, data from the Office for National Statistics shows.

Ms. Dick, 57, who started work as the Metropolitan Police’s first female leader nearly a year ago, has made the tackling of violent crime a central part of her agenda. A key plan is to increase use of stop and search, which was reduced by Theresa May during her time as home secretary.

In a wide-ranging interview in the The Times, Ms. Dick:

  • Promised not to be cowed by political correctness in her efforts to reduce violence, particularly knife crime, after 13 murders in just over two weeks in the capital this month.
  • Announced a new task force with about 100 officers focused on violent crime. There are 600 officers raising awareness in schools as the police treat violence as a public health issue. Drawing children’s attention to the dangers of social media.
  • Called on recreational users of drugs to acknowledge the “fear and misery” they were causing, with much of knife crime linked to street dealing.

Ms. Dick said that social media companies, which have been criticised for their response to prolific terrorist propaganda and online paedophile material, needed to take down content that stoked violence.

“There’s definitely something about the impact of social media in terms of people being able to go from slightly angry with each other to ‘fight’ very quickly.”

She said that gangs who “posture on social media”, including rap videos in which they goaded rivals, glamorised violence. “It makes [violence] faster, it makes it harder for people to cool down. I’m sure it does rev people up.”

UK media reported that this month the family of Miriam Moustafa, 18, who died after she was attacked in Nottingham by ten girls, said that the attack might have taken place because she was mistaken for an Instagram user who had been goading the gang.

Detectives in London have warned that online disputes on sites such as YouTube have resulted in real-world violence. Google, the owner of YouTube, and Facebook have been criticised for failing to take down extremist material. The European Commission warned Internet companies this month to remove such material within an hour of being notified or face legislation forcing them to do so.

Ms. Dick said that it was shocking that young black men were ten times more likely to be killed but “it is absolutely as much about socioeconomic factors as anything else”. Perpetrators and victims of knife crime were often excluded from school and had “something pretty ghastly” happen to them earlier in life.

Ms. Dick acknowledged that it was beyond her remit to comment on social policy but pointed out that the phenomenon of absent fathers was a “challenge” as male role models were important. Many young men involved in crime were “looking to be loved.”

Stop-and-search peaked in England and Wales in 2008-09 when more than 1.5 million were carried out, but use of the tactic fell by up to two thirds after Theresa May, as home secretary, ordered a reduction.

It stemmed from concerns that the tactic was discriminating against ethnic minorities. Ms. Dick assured that it was an important strategy if it was intelligence-led: “we will be out on the streets more; stop and search is likely to go on going up”.

In a recent article, ‘The Internet Made Me Do It” – Social Media and the Potential for Violence in Adolescents’, Dr. Meredith E. Gansner, M.D., a practicing Psychiatrist in Boston contends that teens who spend hours “liking” their friends’ pictures on social networking sites may be significantly more likely to have other traits associated with violent behaviour.

Quantity of Internet use may also be contributory. Several studies connect ‘Problematic Internet Use’ (PIU) or ‘Internet Addiction’ (IA) to increased aggressive behaviours, perhaps because of similar neurobiology between the 2 conditions. PIU and IA are often broadly defined as Internet use that is uncontrollable, markedly distressing, or time-consuming or that results in social, occupational, or financial difficulties.

A study of more than 2000 Korean high school students found a nearly twofold increase in aggression in severely internet-addicted youth over mildly internet-addicted youth, and similar findings have been replicated in other adolescent studies. Other measures of aggressive behaviour show correlation as well. American high school students who met criteria for PIU were significantly more likely to have been in physical fights than were those in a non-PIU cohort.

Alcohol use and depressive symptoms both predict violent behaviour in adolescents, and these factors have also been positively correlated with Internet use. Perhaps unsurprising given neuroimaging findings that suggest brain structural abnormalities in reward circuitry in adolescents with PIU, adolescent PIU is associated with higher levels of alcohol use.

This association has been found both in cross-sectional analyses, as well as in a longitudinal study in which Internet overuse corresponded with heavy alcohol use by early adulthood.

While more contentious, there is growing evidence that pathologic Internet use may positively correlate with depressive disorders, and even “normal” everyday Facebook scrolling may have long-term consequences.

Recent longitudinal studies have found that Facebook use is predictive of a decline in subjective well being, and similar associations have been delineated between depressed mood and overall social network use, as well as with online chatting.

In addition, while PIU can be conceptualized as an addiction, it has also been characterized as an impulse control disorder. Several studies suggest a high degree of overlap between PIU characteristics and impulsivity.

It is this proposed interweaving between impulsivity, depression, aggression, and even increased substance use that may support the idea that adolescents who spend countless hours online may become more violent than they would be if they spent less or no time online.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg will soon testify before a United States Government Congressional committee about the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal that recently engulfed his company. But this should only be the beginning. Larry Page and Sergey Brin who started Google must also be sanctioned and called to account.

Facebook and Google say ‘trust us,’ but Zuckerberg, Page and Brin, together with the rest who control the social networks, need to be held to account for the infectious and addictive nature of the products they have created and the toll that it cost our society.

It has well and truly gone too far and lawmakers need to take stand. It in not only their responsibility, but their moral and social obligation to the future of our society.

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