A review of harmful content online
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It is not difficult to imagine harmful or abusive behaviours being present on social media. What can be challenging to deal with is the presence of popular online personalities or influencers who become well-known and even famous for exhibiting this behaviour over online platforms.
Ultimately, this harmful content represents how larger issues in our world (both online and offline) like misogyny, violence against women and minorities, and sexual misconduct are dealt with and used in digital spheres. With reports from teachers of children quoting divisive online personalities like Andrew Tate, and in some cases even performing acts of violence against peers, it is crucial to take a closer look at the way this content can appear, the behaviours it can encourage, and the reasons it might be appealing.
What is harmful content?
We refer to ‘harmful content’ as any piece of online media (e.g. video, photo, text post, audio, etc.) that has the potential to cause harm or injury to an individual or group of people.
It is worth noting that this can be considered subjective, as what one person may find harmful, another may not. Cultural, social, and personal perspectives can also influence the overall perception of harmfulness. For example, an influencer defending their belief that extreme dieting is helpful because it worked for them versus those commenting who believe it encourages disordered eating or negative self-worth.
What is most concerning about harmful content is the behaviour it may inspire, especially in someone still growing in emotional, physical, and mental maturity. It’s important to keep in mind that if someone is engaging with content promoting harmful behaviours (such as misogyny), it does not mean they fully understand or agree with what is being said (even if they claim they do). This also extends to exhibiting harmful behaviour. A good example of this comes with the online fame of Andrew Tate, a notorious internet personality known for promoting gendered violence and misogyny within content targeted at supporting young men. When asked about mental health, he said, “‘Uh, real men cry and women can cry and men can cry, too, there’s nothing wrong with it.’ And there absolutely is something wrong with it… Life as a man is far more difficult than life as a woman.” While it sounds like Tate is being supportive of men’s mental health, he is basing his claim on a generic sexist statement that may negatively influence the opinions of those who follow him.
What makes this behaviour interesting to viewers?
There are many reasons why someone might begin to show interest in harmful content online.
- Glamourous lifestyle. Many of the influencers or personalities conveying these harmful behaviours appear to be successful and wealthy.
- Fast fame. The controversial nature of these behaviours can quickly turn unknown names into trending hashtags on social media platforms.
- Isolation and loneliness. A newly discovered set of ideologies could offer a place of acceptance and new friends while making sense of their world.
- Looking for advice. A topic or insecurity that a young person needs help with could inspire them to begin vulnerably searching for an answer.
- Keeping up with peers. Young people may desire to appear ‘informed’ with friends or older siblings who might view harmful content for various reasons.
How can someone be exposed to this behaviour?
There are many ways someone might become aware of harmful behaviour online. Remember to regularly check-in with how this may be having an impact.
- Algorithms – As algorithms are used to generate content for users based on posts they have previously interacted with, engaging for even a few seconds with harmful content will suggest that similar content is desired.
- Environment – Extreme physical or verbal abuse may play a part. However, even playful jokes, suggestive comments, or normal arguments within healthy relationships might be interpreted incorrectly and have a negative impact.
- Popular media – Potentially harmful content is increasingly present in many popular television shows and films. This can shape a person’s experiences and thoughts, resulting in further engagement and interest.
When considering the impact that harmful behaviours may have, both online and offline, it’s important to highlight these potential risks.
- Replicating or engaging in the behaviour to ‘fit in’ with others.
- Low self-esteem when comparing life to ‘successful’ personalities.
- Being the victim or perpetrator of cyberbullying or trolling.
- Having an upsetting or negative emotional reaction.
- Reputation damage that could impact relationships and future plans.
- Views and beliefs being negatively influenced in a harmful direction.
To help you give the best care and support possible in situations where harmful content is being used or presented, remember to stay calm and use the following guidance where necessary.
- Recognise the issue. In any situation involving harmful content, the best thing you can do is realise that there is a problem someone needs help with. Use a gentle approach with the person, even if you dislike their behaviour.
- Talk to them. Ask them to explain what happened and give them space to tell you in their own words. It may be emotional or embarrassing to discuss, so allow them to take their time without pressure or constraint.
- Allow room for discussion. Try not to shut down conversations or ban certain topics. Where appropriate, ask the person to think about how they would feel if someone they love was treated this way. Emphasise the damage that this behaviour causes and reflect on why it should stop.
- Be honest. Consider how your own actions (or those of family members or friends) might be affecting this behaviour through shouting, teasing, or even bullying, and how this might be affecting the person’s coping mechanisms.
- Highlight respect. No one is perfect, and sometimes others will hurt another person’s feelings unintentionally. Reminding the person of respectful conduct and compassionate behaviour can help give them their next steps.
Jim Gamble QPM, Chief Executive Officer of the INEQE Safeguarding Group
Jim Gamble is the CEO of the INEQE Safeguarding Group. He is Independent Chair of several London Safeguarding Children’s Boards including City of London and Hackney (CHSCB), the first to be judged outstanding by Ofsted and Bromley (BSCB) where he was part of the leadership team that drove their judgement from ‘inadequate' to ‘good’, with outstanding leadership in two years. He is widely recognised as a global authority on safeguarding children and was the founding chair of the Virtual Global Taskforce; a former national policing lead for child protection and the architect and CEO of the UK Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre. He has undertaken several safeguarding reviews, including the Brighton and Sussex University Hospital Trust and more recently, he led a wide-ranging safeguarding review of Dulwich College, Oxfam GB and an international faith-based organisation at the request of the Charity Commission.