Brianna Ghey and stable-door logic

Picture of Brianna Ghey, a young, white, female presenting teenager with long, blonde hair and glasses, standing in a wooded area wearing a white cardigan and tartan school skirt with her finger pointed out towards the camera.
Brianna Ghey. (Image source: TikTok.)

A few years ago I wrote an article on what I called “stable-door logic”: the tendency, after a disaster or atrocity, to look for ways to make sure that said disaster could not have happened if they had been in place, and to do those things. This came after a German passenger aeroplane was flown into the side of a mountain in the French Alps by its pilot while his co-pilot was out of the cockpit to use the toilet, and the co-pilot was unable to get back in because of security measures put in place after 9/11. We have been seeing the same in the wake of the murder of Brianna Ghey last year and the trial and imprisonment of her two teenage killers: Esther Ghey, Brianna’s mother, has been telling the newspapers that Brianna was vulnerable because of her addiction to social media and calling for special phones to be introduced that offer no access to social media and that if under-16s have access to any phones at all, it should have to be one of these.

Mobile phones that offer no internet access already exist, of course; they were what most of us used before the iPhone and Android became popular (there were smartphones before this, but they were rather more primitive than those of today). Mobile phones are not the only devices that offer social media access; computers and tablets do as well. In the early days of social media, alternatives to Facebook existed that catered to teenagers, such as Bebo and MySpace; the first of these closed down, likely because children wanted access to their parents’ and other relatives’ social media which was on Facebook, and the latter because it was horribly slow and sometimes illegible because of the graphics it allowed people to use, and these days mostly caters to musicians. Facebook has a lot to answer for; in other parts of the world the fake news it allows to be circulated is linked to serious inter-communal violence. But even though Brianna Ghey had been accessing sites discussing self-harm and eating disorders, these things didn’t kill Brianna Ghey; her two schoolmates did.

Esther Ghey seems to have reasoned that Brianna was killed partly because she was transgender, and maybe blames this on social media, and partly on her lack of social skills, which likewise remained undeveloped because she had enough friends online not to have to work on her relationships with her schoolmates. The simple fact is that some children fail to develop friendships at school and this was the case before social media existed. Some children do not get on at school, even if they are academically able and interested in their learning. Online communities provide an avenue for forming friendships for these young people that school does not, and without it, they would just have no friends. Removing supports from people does not always make them self-sufficient, and removing one avenue for friendship and social interaction does not mean they will find another. The killers, Eddie Ratcliffe and Scarlett Jenkinson, were also influenced by things they had read online, but they were also disturbed individuals who both inflamed each other’s criminal tendencies. This phenomenon, called folie à deux, has been documented for decades or centuries, long before computers existed, let alone the Internet. 

There were opportunities to save Brianna, of course. If Scarlett Jenkinson’s old school had passed on the details of her behaviour, the fact that she had given another girl sweets laced with cannabis, making her very ill, perhaps her new school — Brianna’s school — could have ensured other students were protected, or not allowed her into the school. But none of these things were in Esther Ghey’s power; what she could have done was restrict Brianna’s freedom and her access to information and to connections with people online. Once again, people cannot face up to the fact that an evil-doer was too smart for them, and there was nothing they could reasonably have done to prevent them harming someone. As with the German air disaster, the things Esther Ghey suggests we do to prevent another similar tragedy will have unpleasant consequences for lots of other young people: cut them off from perfectly healthy and beneficial friendships, make it more difficult or impossible to contact friends when separated by distance or when one is in hospital, among other things. Although there is a stereotype of autistic people relying on the Internet for their social interaction, chronically ill people do as well, including children, particularly those who are housebound and cannot go to school or to places where people socialise.

Esther Ghey has also demanded that these special phones for teenagers be linked to their parents’ phones, and that they inform the parents if the teenager searches for some forbidden topic or other. This is an extremely dangerous suggestion; the child could be searching for help with something they could not discuss with their parents, maybe because of the parents’ religion or culture but maybe because the parents are the problem: they are the abusers, or they are the ones bringing the abuser into their life. If such parents are informed that their child is looking for ways to escape from the situation or perhaps alert the authorities to the situation, the child’s life could be in danger. It’s a way to increase parental control, not enhance the child’s safety, and sometimes the first does not help with the second.

We must also remember that the safety of all young people was at stake when Scarlett Jenkinson was allowed to move schools after trying to poison someone, not just the one she killed. She and Ratcliffe had a hit-list and there were four other names on it, so if Esther Ghey had managed to keep Brianna wrapped in cotton wool and isolated from her online community and maybe even prevent her from becoming transgender, at least one of the four others would have been at risk. A better way to protect everyone would have been to ensure that pupils, like teachers, cannot enter a school after seriously harming someone or displaying behaviour that strongly suggests they might, at least not without intensive supervision if at all. I can’t see a serious downside to keeping a murderer away from children, which is more than can be said for removing all teenagers’ internet or social media access.

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