Recent revelations about the frequency with which children experience cyber-bullying have caused alarm among parents, advertisers that feature on social media sites and even the Prime Minister.
Social media services such as Facebook, Twitter and ask.fm enable people from across the world and various walks of life to come together and share materials and experiences. However, they also present the classical dual-use dilemma, whereby technology that is used for good can also be exploited for harm.
Cyber-bullying is one such consequence. Perpetrators have direct and easy access to potential victims 24 hours a day, particularly since many users can now access these sites on mobile phones. The reach of such media is also practically global so the victimisation doesn’t end by removal of physical proximity (as has been the case in traditional offline bullying).
Arguments are often made that victims should simply disengage from the social media used by perpetrators of bullying. However, the reality is not that simple. Social media sites are now an integral part of young people’s daily lives and are becoming ingrained in the social fabric of society. Disengaging from such social media can often mean disengaging from one’s friends and family.
We have to accept that young people are going to continue to use social networks so it might be wise to think about how we can make it safe for them, using technological know-how. Technology is not an answer in its own right but it can be used to reinforce the excellent education work carried out by charities such as Beat Bullying. Used wisely, it can be a lynch-pin in detecting and apprehending cyber-bullies.
For a start, social networks no longer need to manually read the massive volume of online communications that take place between users to identify bullies. Agressive and abusive language can be automatically flagged. But the concept of identity can be fluid in the online world and this has enabled bullies to flourish. It is easy to assume different faces online in a way that is impossible in real life, so cyber-bullies can hide their true selves and even switch identities to continue to victimise someone if they have been pulled up for bad behaviour under another persona.
One example of how technology can be used to fight cyber-bullies addresses this problem in particular. At the Isis project, we work on resolving the identities of individuals and groups online to make it hard for perpetrators to hide their identities or use multiple personae. By analysing the language used in online communications we can detect key characteristics that distinguish the online interactions of one person from those of another. Social network hosts can then automatically compare communications originating from multiple identities to detect if the same person or group is hiding behind more than one identity and take the necessary action against them if they step out of line.
Another technological solution to this growing problem is to actively engage young people in designing the social networks they use. The UDesignIt project, for example, calls on young people to collaborate on designing their social media environments. The sharp distinction between bully and victim is softened by this collaborative effort and the social media space becomes a safer place to be.
Parents and schools have a role to play to both highlight the risks posed by online interactions, and encourage standards of good behaviour online (just as they do offline). They also know how best to support victims of cyber-bullying when it happens. But it is unfair to expect victims to miss out on the benefits of social media just as it is unfair to tell a mugging victim to stop walking in the streets at night. Thinking smart on this front can help them to have the best of both worlds.