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London Research and Policy Partnership

High-level policy roundtable tackles ways to keep young Londoners safe from harm on social media

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Nancy Hunt, Principal Policy Officer VRU
Alison Kelly, Research & Performance Manager, VRU

The Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) pioneers a partnership, and public health, approach to tackling violence that is rooted in prevention and early intervention.

The Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) pioneers a partnership, and public health approach to address violence, acknowledging the increasing impact of online harms. Teaming up with the London Research and Policy Partnership, the VRU aims to deepen its understanding and prioritise ethical data use, empowering youth voices in violence reduction. They hosted an academic roundtable discussion, which featured two provocations, Dr Akshi Kumar spoke on the potential of social media analytics and Professor Nicky Stanley addressed the challenges of interpersonal violence and harm in online and offline spaces. The open discussion tackled regulatory and ethical considerations, limitations and risks, and solutions and interventions. The VRU commits to shaping policies and programmes based on community input and stakeholder engagement, ensuring comprehensive and context-sensitive approaches to violence prevention. 

Recognising the increasing impact of online harms on London’s young people and communities, the VRU commissioned a high-level literature scan that revealed a correlation between online and offline violence, especially through social media. However, the precise relationship between online and offline violence is not well understood and the opportunities for intervention are unclear. There are various regulatory, technical and crucially, ethical considerations which might influence the potential for effective prevention. In particular, ethical concerns arise in using social media data for violence prevention, particularly concerning privacy and young people. 

The VRU partnered with the London Research and Policy Partnership (LRAPP) to investigate this paradigm by convening a multi-disciplinary roundtable of academics to examine the issue through multiple lenses. This interrogation hopes to enhance understanding of online harm's offline consequences, prioritise ethical data use, and ultimately empower youth voices in violence reduction efforts. In our ongoing efforts, the VRU will seek input from the community and key stakeholders to help shape policies, raise awareness about the topic, and guide programme design, with a focus on young people's perspectives.

Alison Kelly, Research & Performance Manager, opened the roundtable and introduced Richard Smith, Operations Manager of The Social Switch, one of VRU’s delivery organisations, who provided an overview of the VRU’s online harms support programmes for young people which focuses on training trusted adults. 

In the first provocation, Dr Akshi Kumar of Goldsmiths, University of London, delved into the potential of social media analytics, particularly Natural Language Processing (NLP), as a tool for identifying and intervening in youth violence. NLP can collect and analyse digital footprints, offering early detection of online harm through changes in language, tone, sentiment, and interaction patterns. Despite the potential benefits, there are significant risks and ethical concerns. Dr Kumar concluded by underscoring the importance of striking a balance between technology reliance and real-world application, raising questions about data accuracy, ethical frameworks, successful case studies, and the future role of social media analytics in youth violence prevention.

In the second provocation, Professor Nicky Stanley from the University of Central Lancashire addressed the challenges of interpersonal violence and harm, particularly related to pornography and intimate image sharing among young people. She highlighted the normalisation of these behaviours, their correlation with coercion in relationships, and the need for comprehensive interventions, including education, collaboration, and media literacy efforts. Professor Stanley advocated for recognising the gendered nature of the issue, involving families in safeguarding efforts, and fostering collaboration between education and safeguarding forums. 

The floor opened to a roundtable discussion which allowed all academics and stakeholders to express their research and evidence on various aspects of online harms, concerning data privacy, regulatory and legal issues, and potential policy interventions involving the use of social media for violence reduction. Emerging themes were identified:

Regulatory and Ethical Considerations: Participants highlighted the lack of regulations surrounding social media data and advocated for increased transparency from social media companies and solutions by design. Ethical boundaries for accessing young people's online activity and concerns about increased criminalisation of vulnerable young people were discussed.

Limitations and Risks: While social media analytics provide valuable insights, they should not be solely relied upon for predictive purposes due to the risk of false positives. Concerns were raised about biases in NLP models, especially concerning neurodiversity, and the challenges of validation and regulatory oversight.

The Granularity of Analysis: The granularity of social media analysis was scrutinised, with questions raised about its usefulness for violence interventions at the London level. While data could be narrowed down to a national level, it was noted that more granular analysis, such as at the borough or exact location level, posed challenges.

Nuanced Understanding and Definitions: It was emphasised that understanding the nuances of social media usage concerning violence is crucial, as not all online behaviour directly translates to offline violence. Defining ‘online harms’ and addressing root causes beyond social media, through multi-agency models, were deemed essential.

Solutions and Interventions: Suggestions included adopting a system thinking approach, taking gendered approaches, and implementing bystander interventions. Promoting AI literacy in schools and mentorship and youth work programmes were also recommended, with emphasis on approaching online community interventions in the same way an in-person community is considered. 

Recognising the benefits of social media & avoiding a ‘moral panic’ about young people’s usage: the discussion highlighted how young people use social media to socialise, create, build communities and connect with like-minded peers. The group discussed the importance of avoiding making moral judgments about young people’s social media usage including the sharing of intimate images and the importance of creating inclusive approaches to education around media literacy, particularly when discussing misogyny and radicalisation online. Overall, the discussion highlighted the complexities and challenges of using social media analytics in violence prevention, emphasising the importance of comprehensive and context-sensitive approaches. Ethical considerations, regulatory frameworks, and the need for nuanced understanding were central themes throughout the discussion and will be carried forward by the VRU as they continue to engage with young people, communities and key stakeholders to centre the voice of users in the usage of social media data in violence prevention. 

Are you currently conducting research in online harms and would like to share your work with VRU and LRaPP? Would you like to be part of this evolving area of policy research?

Please contact: Alison.Kelly@london.gov.uk 

Violence Reduction Unit at Senate House

Image (from left to right): Richard Smith, Operations Manager of The Social Switch; Jerome Harvey-Agyei, Youth Participation Lead, VRU; Alison Kelly, Research & Performance Manager, VRU; Nancy Hunt, Principal Policy Officer VRU.