Who is responsible for protecting us from online bullies?
As our lives are increasingly impacted by what happens online in the digital world, we all must adjust to the good and the bad of living virtually. One major issue is that cyberbullying, trolling and similar personal attacks on social media and via messaging apps and their groups, can be truly destructive, with real world negative impact.
Cyberbullying is hard to define exactly, as well as difficult to track. But most knowledgeable commentators believe it is, unfortunately, a growing reality. According to Cyberbullying.org, this practise can be described as “wilful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices”.
Furthermore, when Cyberbullying.org conducts research about the topic, they use this expanded way of making clear what they mean when they use the term: “Cyberbullying is when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through e-mail or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.”
According to the Pew Research Centre in America, “a majority of teens have experienced some form of cyberbullying, with 59% of US teens having been bullied or harassed online and a similar share saying it’s a major problem for people their age.”
Who can stop cyber bullies?
Because most of cyberbullying happens to school-going children, support from parents and within home environments, as well as school-based assistance systems can help a lot to prevent and manage this behaviour. Excellent resources also exist online to assist victims of cyberbullies, such as Unicef’s extensive website guidance on the topic.
The United States Government runs a dedicated website resource called StopBullying.gov that provides lots of useful content about bullying in general and cyberbullying specifically.
In South Africa, Childline offers a helpline to children suffering from bullying, cyber or in other forms.
But while many ways to support cyberbullied children exist, with a significant amount of information available online, what about stopping cyberbullying where it happens online, i.e., on social media and via messaging apps? Who is responsible for stopping cyberbullying from happening online in the first place?
Over the past number years social media companies have been fairly reluctant to interfere with what people do on their platforms, but, research clearly shows that young people want them to do more. Most social media companies leave it to users to do something about cyberbullying themselves.
Facebook, for example, provides resources and guidance on how to handle cyberbullying as a victim. In the article “What should I do if I’m being bullied, harassed or attacked by someone on Facebook?”, the company advises to unfriend, block or report the person doing the bullying.
But is it really that straightforward? Can’t they do more, similarly to the way they had to step in during recent fractious political debates to ban and remove perpetrators of their policies themselves, rather than leave it up to individuals to “unfriend” bullies?
It’s not as if Facebook ignores the issue though. Its Instagram unit, for instance, has rolled out an array of tools for users to manage cyberbullying more effectively.
Adam Mosseri is the head of Instagram. On cyberbullying, he says: “Most of it seems to happen between people who know each other in real life … and teenagers are often reluctant to report or block their peers who bully them online,” as reported in an interview with NPR’s Audie Cornish. “The controls that we had before were insufficient.”
Hence the new range of Instagram’s relatively new tool called Restrict. In addition, the platform has launched a dedicated anti-bullying resource centre highlighting all the tools users can apply to stop cyberbullying on the platform.
Twitter is less vocal about cyberbullying, instead they use the phase “About online abuse” in their resource centre about the topic. Basically, it boils down to users taking actions themselves, such as to report the issue, unfollow abusers and linking to an article on how to help a friend or family with online abuse.
It seems as if the social platforms are acutely aware of this major issue, but they mostly stop with providing tools that users can use to manage or prevent cyberbullying themselves. While these tools, in various degrees depending on the platform, can go a long way to help users, the question remains if the platforms themselves shouldn’t do more in this regard.