Don’t blame social media for violence against women

May 16, 2024
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The recent horrific murders of several women have sparked widespread calls to tackle the scourge of domestic violence. Some commentators have pointed fingers at social media, and internet usage more generally. Pernicious impacts include intolerance of others, especially through ‘echo chambers’ where users reinforce existing prejudices. Suggested remedies include various forms of bans or controls, especially for younger people.

Such refrains have a touch of “round up the usual suspects”. As The Economist suggested on 23 March, concern about younger people using social media is reminiscent of an age-old pattern. In the 1930s the major causes of youth decay were unemployment and marijuana. In the 1980s, children’s excessive television watching was the culprit. Now, in the 2020s, it is social media. “The causes change, the measurements change. What does not change is the absolute certainty with which older adults hold forth on the problems of youth”.

Indeed, there are echoes here of a grumpy and ageing Socrates over two millennia ago: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

We can doubtlessly do more to reduce domestic violence, and to support victims. Certainly, as many have suggested, encouraging tolerance and acceptance of diverse views is helpful. However, those goals will not be helped by focussing attention on issues that have little to do with the problem.

There is strong evidence that social media and internet usage have little negative impact on violence or intolerance more broadly.

Increasing internet usage over the past 30 years in Australia has occurred alongside major reductions in levels of violence, against both men and women. The most rigorous statistics are those on homicide. On 30 April, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) released its statistical report Homicide in Australia 1989‒90 to 2022‒23. The graph (which uses smoothed four-year averages to focus on the trends) shows a strong pattern.

Source: Homicide in Australia 1989‒90 to 2022‒23

Over the last 30 years, homicide rates have halved in Australia. The rate per 100,000 men has fallen from 2.4 in the early 1990s to 1.3 in the early 2020s. It has always been the case that fewer women die in homicides than men, and the gap has been widening. For women, the rate per 100,000 has fallen faster than for men, from 1.5 in the early 1990s to 0.6 in the early 2020s. The numbers dying in domestic violence have mirrored the general trend for women. As the AIC report notes (p10) “The female intimate partner homicide rate decreased overall by two-thirds (66%) in the 34-year period between 1989–90 and 2022–23”.

The overall decline in homicides continued when social media came along. Facebook started in Australia in December 2005, Twitter in 2009 and TikTok in 2018. We can split the above time period in half in 2008. For both men and women, the declines in homicide rates in the pre-social media period 1993-2008 are almost exactly the same as the decline in the 2008-2023 social media years.

So, the adoption both of the internet and of social media have occurred at the same time as major welcome drops in homicide rates. Obviously, other things happened in these years that contributed to this improvement – stronger gun controls among them. But, at the very least, there is no evidence that internet usage and social media worsened the picture.

Other evidence broadens this pattern to levels of tolerance of others as well.

Especially in the United States, recent years have seen growing polarisation of views. With associated intolerance of those not sharing particular views. Numerous commentators have rounded up the usual social media suspects here as well. Once again, that is not supported by evidence.

A 2017 US National Bureau of Economic Research study found polarisation has been strongest among older age groups. Those least likely to use the internet and social media. Younger people, the heaviest users of social media, show much less polarisation of views. On some measures, younger age groups have become more tolerant, in marked contrast to older people.

Similar patterns are suggested in Australia from the annual Scanlon Institute reports on social cohesion. Young people paused their usage of social media to show greater tolerance of others than older generations do. One Scanlon question is an example: do you agree ‘Accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger’? Over three surveys 2018-22, 80% of 18–24-year-olds agreed or strongly agreed. Much higher than the 60% of the 65+ age group.

Returning to the events that triggered the latest calls for internet controls, there is clearly now strong support for measures to reduce domestic violence. And to provide better assistance for the victims. But chasing down cyber rabbit holes trying to control social media or internet usage is unlikely to help.

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