The Death of Molly Russell: A watershed moment

06 Nov 2022 | Research & Business Knowledge

In this timely and thought-provoking post ICG member (and parent of two teenagers) Hanna Chalmers talks through some of the real challenges social media throws society generally and us specifically as researchers.

I’ve been a researcher since I was 22.  I’ve worked in every corner of the British media industry – media and creative agencies, at the BBC and Universal Music, the media division at Ipsos MORI I’ve seen all sides.  I am privileged to have gained such a multi-dimensional perspective into how a central pillar of British society operates and continues to evolve.

I’m also a mum to two boys, now ten and thirteen, and no I don’t feel old enough for this responsibility.  The death of Molly Russell has left me deeply affected and made me more frustrated than ever by the media content they consume that I feel less and less connected to.  I feel powerless.  And as any parent knows, that is not a good way to be made to feel.

Media profiles of people working in the tech industry often highlight their conservative attitudes towards social media when it comes to their own children (self-responsibility!) But as my children enter their teenage years any kind of policing is becoming impossible.  They increasingly spend time outside the home, on their own, sharing, swapping, staring at their phones. We have one TV in the house, in the living room, and 99% of the time my two sons will choose to watch YouTube.  I’ve tried to remove YouTube as an app from the TV – but they just put it back.  It’s a battle that we’ve lost as parents.

And yes, there is so much to love and enjoy about the endless content we are served. But, too many times – when I’ve peered wearily over their shoulders at the kitchen table – or sat on the sofa and engaged with what they’re watching on the TV– I’ve been unsettled by what they’re glued to.

It’s not even when content (often imperceptibly) slips from something okay to something that doesn’t feel okay…

It’s the fact that my two boys are served never-ending content by white, American, male gamers. (Not shout out to MrBeast)

I’m bringing them up, in multi-cultural London, as I was, our family is mixed race, I’m a feminist – and yet this is what the algorithm dictates they are served and which they lap up.

It would be too easy to say, this is generational, kids/teens will always want to watch/listen to stuff their parents don’t like.  But, putting to one side content that is explicitly problematic, or disturbing, what are the (unintended) consequences of an algorithm that only serves white boys, white male (American) content?  And how regularly does innocuous gamer content slide into stuff that I as a parent, woman, progressive, have a problem with – into a world coined by Hans Magnus Enzensberger back in 2005 of ‘Radical Losers’. What kind of culture is being nurtured and encouraged?

Noises are made by the industry – Andrew Tate was recently kicked off social media – but this has absolutely no impact on the wider problem – outlined by my personal experience above – and at a much more distressing level by the terrible death of Molly Russell.

As a parent, I feel frustrated and distressed by what I’m seeing.

But as researchers in the media industry, we have a responsibility, we can do something.  We know what the issues are – and the death of Molly Russell must serve as a watershed moment. We must use our expertise to forensically examine how different types of content shapes behaviour and culture, particularly for young people forging their own sense of self, and use this understanding to drive positive change.  There are still fortunes to be made whilst ensuring that algorithms get a bit more clever, frankly, about what young adults search for and what they are served up.

A better social media world is surely possible.

Hanna. CultureStudio. 2022.