It was widely reported yesterday that Facebook have released some new security tools, including a reporting mechanism that allows kids to report an incident of bullying to a trusted adult. This initiative is parted of Facebook’s revamped Family Safety Center and came directly as a result of Facebook’s involvement with the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention.
It’s widely acknowledged that online bullying is a serious problem kids face today, and so reaction to the move has been largely positive, if mixed. On JJJ’s Hack program yesterday, QUT’s Marilyn Campbell suggested that the move was all well and good, but
I think that sometimes there’s a false sense of security when you have a kind of technological solution like this. Kids actually don’t tell adults, because one they don’t want the technology taken away from them, and two a lot of kids who have told an adult – the bullying actually gets worse. I would think that kids would think, “Ah, if we told an adult, the cyber-bullying actually could get worse.”
The program then followed up with a grab from me suggesting that that social networking may help kids build up resilience. I do think that, but I think some context is in order, and I’m not sure Dr Campbell’s assertion above may be borne out by the evidence.
A couple of weeks ago I attended an event around Child Protection and the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute and got to hear about some very interesting research lead by the LSE’s Professor Sonia Livingston, who has long been working in the area and is a director of the “EU Kids Online” project, which researches the online activities of European children. Their recent report, “Risks and Safety on the Internet“, surveyed 25,000 European kids and their parents about risky online behaviour such as exposure to sexual content, sexting, cyber-bulling and meeting online contacts in the real world.
The report’s findings around cyber-bulling are fascinating. Firstly, cyber-bulling is just a subset of bullying. While 19% of kids said they’d been bullied in the last 12 months, only 6% said this happened to them online.
Secondly, cyber bullying does seem to upset kids: Of those kids who were bullied online, about half (55%) said they were left either very upset or a fairly upset by the experience. However, a large majority (62%) reported that they “got over it right away”, and only 8% said it took them weeks or months to get over the experience.
Thirdly, and perhaps most encouragingly, kids aren’t keeping it to themselves. 77% of kids reported telling someone about it – friends and parents being the most common (52% and 42% respectively). The report notes that this might explain why parents, when surveyed, were generally pretty accurate in their assessments of whether their kids had experienced online bullying. This would seem to suggest that a “tell an adult” button might actually be something kids use. I think this is counter-intuitive, but a nice change.
Perhaps the numbers in Australia will differ greatly from Europe; we’ll have some indication soon, hopefully, as Prof. Livingston told me researchers at Edith Cowan University are conducting a smaller study here using the same questions. In the meantime, the thoroughness of this research means we shouldn’t discount it.
The most important thing to remember is that cyber-bullying is just bullying. Unlike some lawmakers, kids don’t see a firm distinction between the nasty comments they receive via IM and the ones they receive in the schoolyard. After all, the perpetrators are usually the same people. So looking for a technological solution is always going to be a band-aid at best. The internet is how we communicate these days, but does little to change the social dynamics of the schoolyard. That’s not something Facebook are going to be able to change.
Rather than excluding younger kids from social networking, the evidence would suggest the risks are balanced by the benefits and that any upset kids to experienced is by and large easy for them to shrug off. Allowing them to participate – and, yes, build up resilience – may do more to help them than shielding them from dangers that are often exaggerated in the minds of adults.