View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Encounter
21 February 2024

Esther Ghey: “The internet unleashed horrific things”

The mother of the murdered teenager Brianna Ghey on how to protect children online.

By Sarah Dawood

When Esther Ghey walked through the door of a huge co-working space on the seventh floor of Television Centre, the former home of the BBC in White City, London, she smiled with a hint of tiredness. Ghey has faced an overwhelming amount of media attention in the year since the death of her daughter, Brianna.

As she sat down on the sofa across from me, coffee in hand, I noticed the tattoos that travel up her arm – a homage to her child. “I have some bad days,” Ghey, who is 37 and dressed in a smart black dress, told me. “But as time has gone on, the bad days are becoming less. And I think that focusing on what we can do to make positive change just really helps me to carry on.”

Brianna, a 16-year-old transgender girl, was stabbed to death in a park in Warrington, Cheshire, last year. Her killers, Scarlett Jenkinson and Eddie Ratcliffe, also 16, were sentenced on 3 February to a minimum of 22 years and 20 years respectively after a judge ruled that the murder was “brutal and planned”, “sadistic in nature” and driven by transphobia. Jenkinson is thought to have been encouraged by watching murder and torture videos on the dark web.

Children have unfettered access to the most abhorrent content online, Ghey said, and it is impossible for parents to protect them. For this reason, she has empathy for the families of Jenkinson and Ratcliffe. “I have an understanding of what it’s like to be a parent to a teenager in this day and age. And with social media and the online world, you don’t really know what your child is up to. It’s just impossible to monitor them 24/7.”

According to a report by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Rachel de Souza, 45 per cent of children aged eight to 17 have seen content online they felt was inappropriate or made them worried or upset. This included sexualised and violent imagery, anonymous trolling and material promoting suicide, self-harm and eating disorders. A separate study found half of children have seen pornography by the age of 13.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

Since Brianna’s death, Ghey – who has another daughter, aged 19 – has campaigned on children’s mental health and online safety. She is calling for a new law banning under-16s from having social media apps on their devices. The addictive nature of smartphones is too great for an adult, let alone a child, to resist. “I don’t think that we can ban phones completely for young people. The future is going to be very technological, and we can’t completely keep them away from that. But I would like to see mobile phone companies take more responsibility.”

On 19 February the Department for Education released guidance supporting schools to ban mobile phone use on site, including at break times. Ghey would go further: she is campaigning for the nationwide roll-out of software that links children’s and parents’ phones. Parents would be alerted if their children searched for topics of concern online. While she’s “not an expert”, Ghey said, she knows such software exists because teachers already use it in schools.

Ghey has been using a meditation app for eight years to help manage stress. After seeing “hateful and transphobic” comments posted beneath articles about Brianna’s death, she felt the practice could help instil compassion in young people. Her campaign “Peace in Mind”, run in partnership with the charity Mindfulness in Schools, has raised £95,000 to provide mindfulness training for teachers in Warrington. Ghey hopes it will be implemented nationally. “We need more empathy in this world and people need to be more mindful of what they’re saying,” she said. “I think mobile phones cause mental health issues, and mindfulness can teach you to… become more mentally resilient.”

[See also: The David Cameron effect]

According to NHS England, more than 400,000 young people are waiting for treatment under Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Ghey believes the government is not doing enough to diagnose and treat the causes of this epidemic. “Instead of pumping money into a system to stick a plaster on it, why is this happening in the first place?” she said. “Since the pandemic and lockdowns, young people [have been] totally isolated and forced on to this online world. And I think that has probably impacted that number [of children with mental-health problems] as well.” Would she advocate for therapy to be provided in schools as well as mindfulness? “We need both. We need mindfulness as the preventative, then there should be mental-health support in schools for people who are struggling.”

The Online Safety Act, a world-first attempt to regulate the internet, was signed into law in October 2023. It threatens Big Tech companies with fines or criminal prosecution if they fail to prevent the spread of illegal content, such as that concerning child abuse or terrorism, and if they don’t protect children from “legal but harmful” content, such as videos promoting eating disorders. But Ghey believes the law is too confusing and makes it easy for the tech giants to evade punishment. “Trolling”, for example, is classed as a form of harassment and therefore illegal, but when she reported transphobic comments she had received online, social media platforms told her they did not breach their guidelines. Algorithms that “feed [children] more and more” harmful content also demand stronger regulation, she said. Brianna self-harmed and had suffered from an eating disorder, and Ghey said exposure to social media made her conditions worse. “She was accessing pages that encouraged her to self-harm and restrict her eating. It’s completely devastating to a child’s life.”

Most social media apps require users to be at least 13, and the Online Safety Act states that platforms must have age-checking processes in place. But while some websites, such as those featuring pornography, will need to enforce strict age verification processes involving photo ID by 2025, the guidelines for social media platforms are vague. “I would like to know exactly how they are going to do the age verification process. Will it be like an alcohol website [where you type in a date of birth] or like a bank, where you show a passport and a photo? And what about the millions of children who are already on social media?” Ghey questioned whether platforms would check the ages of all existing users.

Can the internet also be a force for good? “There are positives – a lot of young people do get their social interaction online,” Ghey said. “But I also think it stops them from going out and seeing people face-to-face… When you’re constantly scrolling through Instagram, and [you see] things that aren’t deemed as harmful, like people portraying a perfect life and using filters – that also impacts anxiety and mental health.”

A few days before we spoke, Ghey met Ian Russell, the online safety campaigner and father of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who took her own life in 2017 after watching self-harm videos on Instagram. “There’s power in numbers – lots of voices are louder than one voice,” Ghey told me. “The government has got a responsibility. We all need to come together – the government, parents and tech companies.”

After several months of media appearances, Esther Ghey plans to take a break from campaigning. But she’ll soon be back and will speak to ministers about how to keep children safe in the online world. “The internet is a bit like Pandora’s box,” she said. “It released all these horrific things that weren’t really there before. To make things better, we do all need to come together.”  

[See also: Layla Moran: “I’m searching for kernels of hope in the rubble”]

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU