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Homotech: Facebook Faces Up to Bullying

by Shaun Knittel
Contributor
Thursday Aug 16, 2012
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Bullying on the Internet, or cyberbullying, is the digital version of schoolyard threats. The number of victims, with ages ranging from tween and teen to young adult, is chilling.

Thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet and mobile devices, what was once a local problem has morphed into an epidemic. A prominent child safety company named uKnowKids has cited results of surveys showing that fully four-fifths of youth surveyed agree that bullying online is easier to get away with than in person. According to a recent uKnowKids study, nearly all middle-school children have been bullied online, while only 10 percent of them reported the abuse to their parents.

Social media giant Facebook, along with some concerned politicians, are finally taking the problem seriously. Facebook has taken steps to help prevent cyberbullying before students return to school in the coming weeks.

Facebook is the most obvious battleground in the war on cyberbullying. With nearly 1 billion (yes, that’s a billion not million) members that login to chat, message, tag photos, and post updates, the social network giant has become the main disseminator for online bullies looking to harass victims on the most public of formats.

Recently, the company changed how content is reported by giving users tools to better communicate their feelings and handle conflicts themselves. The changes are the result of collaborations with three universities, Yale, Columbia and Berkeley. Facebook based its new policy on months of research and focus groups with kids, teachers and clinical psychologists.

"We feel it is important that Facebook provide encouragement for kids to seek out their own support network," Robin Stern, a psychoanalyst from Columbia University who worked on the project, told CNN. "The children tell us they are spending hours online.. They are living their lives with Facebook on in the background."

Getting Help Easily

Facebook has a rule on the books that users must be at least 13 years old to sign up for an account. It’s no secret, however, that Web-savvy tweens easily find ways around the restriction. And not a few of them: Over one-third of Americans under 12 are estimated to have Facebook accounts, according to uKnowKids. That equates to 7.5 million vulnerable adolescents.

Bowing to reality, Facebook officials have offered teens that want to report a threatening post or image a schoolmate a click-link to "This post is a problem," instead of the previously existing "Report."

Then they can answer a series of questions meant to shed light on how serious the issue is and help Facebook monitors to determine if, indeed, someone is being bullied. There’s even a grid for ranking emotions.

Once the intended cyberbullying victim finishes the questions, Facebook automatically responds with a list of actions based on how pressing the complaint is. If the teen is more aggravated than scared, they could choose to send a pre-written message to the other person saying that the post made them feel uncomfortable.

If the student is frightened or feels immediately threatened, he or she is prompted to get help from a trusted friend or adult. There are links to catch anyone who may be feeling suicidal and direct them to professionals and Facebook’s own suicide chat hotline.

"Language really matters and design really matters for this stuff," said Jake Brill, a Facebook product manager. "The smallest change can have a really notable impact."

California Addresses Cyberbullying

To help educators and parents understand and deal with the problem, uKnowKids has designed a campaign to inform them of the importance of telling kids how to navigate interactions on social networking sites.

"We know that more information in the hands of appropriate influencers will ultimately lead to safer kids," said uKnowKids Community Outreach Manager Tyler O’Rourke in an online interview. "That’s our ultimate goal."

UKnowKids also addresses what you can do if your child is caught being a cyberbully. "At the very least," the company recommends, "you should monitor your children’s social media accounts. Some parents choose to ’friend’ their child. But with privacy settings, kids can easily block what Mom and Dad see."

California now includes "burn pages" to the list of kinds of Internet bullying that can result in California students being suspended or expelled from school.

In the days before the Internet, students would often create "burn books" where others students would write mean things about their peers. Now, according to Brown, there have been incidents in which students have created a "burn page" on a social networking site, where they and others write bad things about a peer. The idea is the same, but the exposure is greater because of the number of "likes" a "burn page" has the potential to garner.

The measure, which was authored by California Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose), expands the definition of bullying to the impersonation of a student on the Internet to spur derision of that student and creating fake social network profiles in ways that harass students.

The most notorious case of cyberbullying occurred way back in the MySpace days. In 2007, a Missouri woman impersonated a boy who befriended a girl her daughter hated. Lori Drew gave Megan Taylor Meier the impression that he liked her and led her on, only to dump her online. Meier, despondent over the virtual break-up and the constant harassment by a "mean girls" clique in her school, committed suicide.

The California law, which takes effect next year, expands on legislation approved that covered posting messages on a social media site under the state’s Education Department’s anti-bullying provisions.

"All of us have encountered bullying in one form or another growing up," Campos told the Los Angeles Times. "But today’s bullying is a steroid version of what we had to go through."

Several other states have address cyberbullying. But California’s size and prominence makes its steps significant in a growing national movement to address the problem.

In July, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law protocols to curb online bullying. Schools must promptly investigate such reports. The law also mandates training of educators, informing the police where appropriate and reaching out to communities to confront the problem.

Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News.

This article is part of our "HomoTech" series. Want to read more? Here's the full list»

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