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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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An account can be shut down, but a determined troll can set up a new one all too quickly. The context is not a single text, page, site, app, or service, it’s everyday life – for young people, typically school life – something on which a media service, even if it had a mere few thousand users, couldn’t possibly have enough context to solve emotional or relational problems or stop a sociopath.

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That being the case, then what can public or government pressure (in this case, on a company in a another country) do but bring about incremental changes in the few responsible, high-profile services the public and governments know about? Then too, if that pressure somehow makes the services more restrictive, users who don’t want those restrictions can simply move on to less restrictive, less responsible sites, apps, and services.

What will help

To her credit, Abbott called on her government and Education Secretary Michael Gove “to rethink policy and give greater importance to teaching children about relationships.” She said she felt the government’s main failing is a “refusal to make sex and relationship education compulsory.” Based on what I’ve learned in the past two years of working with psychologists, researchers, risk prevention experts, and social-literacy educators, I think she’s right. That – and I’ll interpret “relationship education” to mean social-emotional learning (SEL) or social literacy – will go far in tackling bullying online and offline, in schools and our children’s future workplaces (see this). But it will take time, of course, and is therefore not a political solution.

So more research and education is always good, but collectively we know plenty already about how to help reduce bullying, trolling, and other social cruelty online. We can help young people have good experiences online by…

  • Providing them with evidence-based social-literacy training and/or bullying-prevention programs that embrace online as much as offline interaction (SEL just covers more ground than bullying prevention).
  • Instead of representing them as potential victims, giving them a sense of agency and efficacy in digital environments – helping them see that they are stakeholders in their own wellbeing online as well as that of their peers and communities.
  • Instead of risk avoidance, focusing more on supporting risk assessment and the resilience that helps them deal with social cruelty and heal more quickly when it does happen (see this about how resilience doesn’t come without risk). That way, they may be less prone to the depression that “is a major risk factor for suicide,” according to the SPRC.
  • In online and offline safety programs, giving as much weight to internal protections – resilience, empathy, media literacy, and ethics – as to external measures such as filtering, monitoring, rules, and policymaking.

Those will all help greatly, but the solution is no more dependent just on youth training than it can be on governments or social media services. By the nature of today’s user-driven, very social media, the power to improve everybody’s experiences in social media is distributed and safety a shared responsibility (see this about how it works in the globally popular, Sweden-based online game Minecraft).

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at Net Family News.

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