ANU Law scholar researches youth perceptions of social media with UK charity

Dr Faith Gordon discusses how the issue of online harms is exponentially increasing.

Dr Faith Gordon is a senior lecturer at The Australian National University (ANU) College of Law with a background in law and criminology. She is currently leading a consultancy project examining young people, online harms and regulation of social media platforms with London-based youth organisation, Catch22.

On 9 December 2020, Dr Gordon will join a panel discussion featuring industry experts, researchers and policymakers to explore the latest on online harms including interim findings from Catch22's research on young peoples' perspectives of social media, acceptable use, and the enforcement challenges faced in the UK and overseas.

In this Q&A, she discusses her research and the unique challenges facing young people related to their use of social media during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What does your consultancy project aim to explore?

The consultancy project gives a platform to children and young people views on the digital spaces they use. The workshops involve over 50 children and young people (age 10-18), all working with Catch22’s services and programmes. The study explores children’s and young people’s perceptions of social media (the benefits and the risks), what is deemed acceptable use’ across various platforms, and the measures they think could work as part of either regulation or self-regulation, to make social media safer. The focus groups have included discussions about issues including:

  • the 'blurring' of online/offline life;
  • whether COVID-19 has impacted on online use and experiences;
  • experience of making complaints/raising issues;
  • perceptions of age verification and 'acceptable use' policies on various platforms;
  • how they think social media could be made safer.

The project also involves qualitative interviews with other researchers, tech organisations, educators, victim support services, those working in safeguarding and law enforcement, to discuss what the challenges they experience in terms of how acceptable behaviour is monitored and enforced, and the wider societal measures that need to be considered. This study hopes to provide unique and new perspectives, which will feed into the current debates and discussions in the UK in relation to the proposed Online Harms legislation.

How did the partnership with Catch22 come about?

Prior to moving to Australia in August 2018, I worked at the University of Westminster in London. During my time there, I established the interdisciplinary Youth Justice Network. I organised a series of knowledge exchange events and Catch22 were involved.  I also was invited to chair a conference for the UK Public Policy Exchange, entitled: ‘Ending Gang Violence & Exploitation: Working in Partnership to Tackle Serious Youth Crime’ in London and Dr Keir Irwin-Rodgers presented his ongoing work with Dr Craig Pinkney (funded by Catch22), which again sparked discussions about shared research interests and advocacy work in this space. Keir’s and Craig’s significant study can be accessed here on Catch22’s website.

How did you become interested in the field/s of young people and online harm, and does this project build on any of your previous research?

More broadly, my programme of research utilises a socio-legal framework to understand, critique and inform legal policy and practice, with a particular focus on children’s experiences in the criminal justice system, including serious social and legal problems such as pre-charge identification, digitally-enabled abuse and open justice and the courts in the digital age. It is informed by national and international contexts and is particularly interested in how vulnerable individuals and social groups (in particular children) access justice in the digital age, especially in light of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and biometric technologies. 

This study does build on my previous research, in particular my PhD and my first sole-authored monograph. I first became interested in children, young people and online harms during my PhD focus groups and interviews in Northern Ireland back in 2010. While the focus of my PhD was mainly about mainstream print and online news media and third-party commentary, there was emerging confronting examples from children and young people about how they were being ‘named and shamed’ on online platforms, some of this led to them being physically and psychologically harmed offline. The research also found that children and young people who created their own forms of media to challenge mainstream representations, often became the targets of physical attacks by paramilitaries in their community.

Has your research resulted in any changes?

My research on journalists’ use of children’s social media content without permission brought an evidence-base to the debates and discussions, which did not exist before and informed the revisions to the UK IPSO guidelines on journalists use of social media.

The findings from over a decade’s worth of research in this area have also been utilised in past and ongoing Judicial Review cases in Northern Ireland and I have acted as a consultant for written submissions to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, with my research being made reference to by the UNCRC at the 72nd session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child (2016). My research was recently cited in the UK Court of Appeal (2019). 

I actively submit responses to consultations and submitted a response with Dr Paul Reilly on online harms in Northern Ireland last year and submitted a response to the UN on children’s rights and the digital environment with Josie Cochrane from Catch22 this month. 

Does your research relate to any courses you are teaching?

I am really passionate about research-informed teaching and regularly draw on my research when preparing lectures, designing assessments and also during classroom-based tutorial teaching. Given how evolving this field is and the topical nature of it, I hope to develop a new unit on children’s law and children’s rights, with elements of law and technology. The concept of ‘harm’ is something we unpack and explore in many units, such as Criminal Law and Procedure. 

What is often overlooked in debates about social media regulation?

As this research study is demonstrating, the voices, experiences and challenges for more marginalised online users is certainly missing from the discussions and debates in this area.  Children and young people are describing key concerns and issues for them and also are highlighting how they rarely are asked for their opinions on issues affecting them. 

Other aspects that are overlooked are the more ‘grey areas’ of harm that children and young people identify and how a regulatory framework may be able to address these issues also, as well as how regulatory frameworks can evolve as new technologies and platforms emerge. Many experts have suggested a more ‘principles-based’ framework to address these concerns.

How can people learn more about your research in this field?

In early 2021, Catch22 and the ANU will be launching the written report (more details to follow in due course!) and a series of blogs are planned, as well as different ways of disseminating the findings back to children and young people in visual formats.  The first event related to the project is taking place online on 9 December. I will be discussing preliminary findings on a panel with The UK Victim’s Commissioner, a young person from the Mayor in London’s Advisory Group and a Professor from the University of Essex.

Register for ‘Online harms: Interim findings from an international review’ here. Please note this event will commence at 10am GMT (9pm AEST).

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Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team