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Hannah Smith: What exactly is cyberbullying and how prevalent is it?

Hannah Smith committed suicide after being bullied relentlessly online. Doubtless, we'll be hearing a lot about how cyberbullying is the scourge of the tech generation, but that's not the whole story. 

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There’s a lot of insight in the SPRC’s issue brief about the relationship between bullying and suicide, starting on p. 2, and more recently from a study presented at the 2012 annual conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) which looked at both online and offline bullying in relation to suicide in 41 cases in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia.

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The study’s author, John LeBlanc, MD, found that “78% of adolescents who committed suicide were bullied both at school and online, and only 17% were targeted online only.” So, he continued in the AAP’s press release, “cyberbullying is a factor in some suicides, but almost always there are other factors such as mental illness or face-to-face bullying.” 

Formspring.me (an older US-based Q&A site allowing anonymity like the Latvia-based Ask.fm cited in the coverage of Hannah Smith’s case) and Facebook were specifically mentioned in 21 of the 41 cases Dr. LeBlanc reviewed. Text or video messaging was involved in 14 of the cases. About the anonymity factor: “Certain social media, by virtue of allowing anonymity, may encourage cyberbullying,” LeBlanc added.

Social media

So while multiple sources – doctors, researchers, and bullying prevention experts – caution against focusing on a single factor such as cyberbullying in suicide, cyberbullying and even social media are the focus of speculation about the cause of Hannah Smith’s suicide.

It’s understandable that people fear or focus reflexively on what they understand the least, but we now have enough research to understand social media as more of a mirror than a cause – a mirror reflecting a growing proportion of human interaction and behavior, positive, negative, and neutral.

When it’s negative – and it’s news reporters’ job to report what’s rare, e.g., airline crashes not safe landings – the strength of our reaction is understandably proportionate to how disturbing the image is.

What’s different about this new media era, in addition to invisible audiences, instant copy-and-paste mass distribution, searchability, and other factors social media researcher Danah Boyd detailed in her 2009 PhD dissertation, is that the full spectrum of everyday interaction is more visible – in our faces, even, more than ever. It’s deeply disturbing, but the increased visibility of cruel behavior doesn’t mean increased cruel behavior. It’s often taken to mean that by reporters and policymakers, however.

We very much need to reduce trolling and abuse of online anonymity by Net users of all ages, and we will as social norms flow more and more into digital environments, but we must not react to tragic cases by communicating that social media causes social cruelty or suicide. If we do, we’re misinforming our children about the problem and failing to equip them to help create solutions that absolutely require their (and all users’) help in user-driven media environments.

Limited but distributed & shared regulatory power

UK Member of Parliament Diane Abbott and other public figures are calling on social media companies to take more responsibility for the behavior of their users and on government to pressure them to, The Guardian reported.

Social media services can always do more to respond quickly to reports of threats and severe harassment, but policymakers don’t understand social media if they think that even the swiftest response to bullying that is reported (much less than what goes unreported) can fix offline relationship problems or help vulnerable people.

It must be that, when we think that social media’s the problem, we turn to it for the solution. But nothing a single online service can do could stop cruel behavior that moves fast and fluidly among sites, texting services, and apps, and from offline to online and back again, in what is often a chain of action and reaction.

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