DR MAX PEMBERTON: The whole web is a risk to children 

DR MAX PEMBERTON: It’s not just Facebook that parents should worry about – the whole web is a risk to children

  • Facebook has come under fire for the way it has tackled online abuse and safety
  • Dr Max Pemberton says it is not the only platform that is barely monitored
  • Adds law needs to ensure companies take responsibility for safety of their users
  • There was a time when Sheryl Sandberg could do no wrong. The chief operating officer of Facebook — or rather ‘Meta’, as it’s now been renamed — was once the poster-girl of the modern successful woman. Capable, glamorous and happy, she had made it in the male-dominated Silicon Valley.

    Her best-selling book Lean In was a clarion call to women everywhere to be more confident, to stand up and speak up. She was a leader people wanted to follow. I remember for months after it was released seeing everyone reading it on the commute to work. She was considered a messiah of our times, inspiring women everywhere to try harder, aim higher.

    Well, it seems the halo is slipping somewhat.

    Facebook has come under sustained fire in recent months for the way it has tackled online abuse, threats, censorship, safety and security. It’s been dragged in to various ignoble scandals. Being second in command there is starting to look less and less like something to brag about.

    Mark Zuckerberg is starting to look like a bogeyman of the internet, rather than the quirky college kid who happened to strike gold with an idea that connected friends.

    Dr Max Pemberton said Facebook isn't the only platform that is barely monitored and dangerous both in terms of bullying and adult grooming (file image)

    Dr Max Pemberton said Facebook isn’t the only platform that is barely monitored and dangerous both in terms of bullying and adult grooming (file image)

    It was inevitable that Sandberg would eventually get dragged in to all this one way or another. Last week, an anonymous whistleblower claimed Sandberg gave ‘constant’ reminders to staff to think about profits as they tried to tackle toxic content. According to the source, she helped create a culture which led managers to apply this approach even to issues relating to child sexual abuse.

    This really doesn’t look good. She’s coming across as just another unpleasant, uncaring corporate fat cat.

    Lean in? You can feel people actively leaning away. Last week another whistleblower, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who released tens of thousands of damaging documents about the media giant’s inner workings, told MPs that Zuckerberg ‘has unilateral control over three billion people’ due to his unassailable position at the top of the company.

    She went on to call for urgent external regulation to rein in the tech firm’s management and reduce the harm being done to society.

    This seems to be a long time coming. The fact that a company — and one that makes billions each year — can operate with such pathetically scant regulation just beggars belief, especially when you think of the tremendous harm it can do, especially to young people.

    It makes no sense, especially when you think of the tightly controlled health and safety regulations that govern most areas of life, particularly for children.

    Schools, councils, shops, clubs and organisations are bowed down by regulation and red tape to ensure children’s safety. Try taking a kid on a school trip these days. Some schools have even banned children from playing conkers in the playground, for goodness’ sake. Yet they are allowed to roam free on websites that mean they can chat to all sorts of people from bullying peers to predatory paedophiles — how on earth has this situation been allowed to develop?

    Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) said the law needs to be far more robust to ensure companies take responsibility for the safety of their users

    Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) said the law needs to be far more robust to ensure companies take responsibility for the safety of their users

    We know this is a problem — it’s the reason there’s such a hoo-ha surrounding the Facebook whistleblowers — but we must remember it’s not just Facebook.

    In fact, while adults are fretting over the site, the kids have long since gone elsewhere.

    Indeed, the latest generation have never really been on Facebook at all.

    Most young people I speak to only have an account to stay in touch with family. They certainly don’t interact with one another on there. It’s considered a platform for oldies.

    Scientists have developed a five-minute test that will, they claim, predict your risk of getting Alzheimer’s in up to 15 years’ time. The company is beginning an NHS trial soon, but you can count me out. I can’t think of anything worse than knowing you are at risk of developing something for which there is no cure. 

    That’s not to say Facebook doesn’t have its problems — it certainly does. And of course, it’s also responsible for other sites such as Instagram and WhatsApp, which certainly have more traction with the younger generation. But there are a multitude of other platforms, chat services and forums that are far more popular these days.

    Keeping up with what is going on is a minefield. Most of these sites fly well under the radar of parents and politicians. Talk to a teenager and they will mention Snapchat, TikTok, Discord, GroupMe, Whisper, Yik Yak… the list goes on and on. Many of these sites are barely monitored and, it seems to me, dangerous both in terms of bullying and adult grooming.

    So what’s the answer? Yes, let’s put regulations and controls in place. And sure, let’s hold Facebook to account. But don’t forget there’s plenty more that adults don’t know about. The law needs to be far more robust to ensure companies take responsibility for the safety of their users, in the same way we’d expect any other firm or organisation that operates in a physical space to.

    But also it comes down to parents — just as you would expect to know where your child is and who they are with when they leave the house, so should you expect the same transparency when it comes to the digital world. Because, it turns out, it’s far more dangerous than many of us want to admit.


    Group therapy with Adele

    Dr Max said the entire audience was in tears when he attended an Adele (pictured) concert a few years ago

    Dr Max said the entire audience was in tears when he attended an Adele (pictured) concert a few years ago

    Adele has managed to do it again. Her new single Easy On Me has soared straight to number one and this weekend tickets for next summer’s Hyde Park concerts sold out in five minutes. This woman really knows how to tug at the heart strings, doesn’t she? I think her genius — and wild popularity — lies in the fact she manages to gently articulate feelings many of us struggle to even acknowledge, let alone understand.

    I remember going to an Adele concert a few years ago. I wasn’t a fan at that point, but she totally won me over. What struck me was how the entire audience — and I mean everyone — was in tears. It was extraordinary, like some giant group therapy exercise. I’d never seen anything like it and it helped me understand her mass appeal. She provides a safe, contained space for us to explore acutely painful feelings. A class act.

    • A general who led the Royal Marines’ invasion of Iraq has been appointed to lead the biggest shake-up of NHS management in 40 years. Sir Gordon Messenger has been asked to stamp out ‘waste and wokery’ and ensure that ‘every pound is well spent’. Thank goodness. If anyone can do it, he can.

    The NHS could learn so much from the military. Isn’t it telling that when we need something done and done properly, we don’t look to NHS management for the answer, but the military?

    When the PPE fiasco was unfolding, it was the Army we had to rely on to get things up and running. And at testing centres, too. In episodes like these you realise how much time is wasted and resources squandered in the health service by people always feeling they need to give their two pennies’ worth.

    A lot of those in the NHS could do with a bit of military discipline.

    £32, pantherella.com

    £32, pantherella.com

    Dr Max prescribes…

    cashmere socks

    I’m a great believer in the mental boost we get from treating ourselves to small luxuries every now and then. And what could be more luxurious as the cold weather draws in than fine-knit cashmere socks? Since the pandemic, I’ve been trying to support British manufacturing so I particularly like these from Pantherella, which are made in Leicester.




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