Facebook accepts its responsibility to help curb online bullying
Facebook is often namechecked in reports that slam social media for fuelling cyberbullying. There’s also a sense that online bullying has morphed within the plethora of social media apps into something that’s difficult for older generations to grasp. Only this week, Childline released figures showing that more than 60 children are calling the service each day with suicidal thoughts, and children as young as 10 are calling the helpline seeking support for online abuse.
In an attempt to help combat cyberbullying on social networks like its own, Facebook is acknowledging a serious responsibility for providing the “best tools” and the “best policies” to protect young people.
As part of this, the social network plans to offer so-called “digital safety ambassadors” to 4,500 secondary schools across the UK in a new partnership with Childnet International and The Diana Awards.
The move comes alongside figures from specialist youth research agency, ResearchBods, that found 63% of 1,000 surveyed young people want more peer-led anti-bullying education programmes in schools.
The new partnership will see Facebook help to scale up Childnet International and The Diana Awards’ pre-existing programmes, offering children across the country the chance to become anti-bullying ambassadors. The idea is that these children can be a reliable point-of-call for peers that may be suffering at the hands of bullies. They’ll even know enough about the dos and don’ts of internet precautions to lead online safety initiatives in the classroom.
Alex Holmes, head of anti-bullying for The Diana Award, said that school bullying in the 21st century is very much entwined with online platforms: “Interestingly, speaking to young people, our research suggests the biggest bullying they face is still school based, face-to-face,” he said. “But often what happens online is an extension of offline behaviour; of familiar relationships in school that find their way into cyberbullying. It’s very rare for a child to be cyberbullied by a stranger. It’s usually someone they know at school.”
The problem and the solution
Facebook arguably established many of the structures – from photo tagging to status updates – that are misused by online bullies. I asked Caroline Millin, Safety Policy Programmes at Facebook, whether this new partnership is only helping to solve a problem that the social network helped to create in the first place.
“We get that a lot. People say Facebook has created an issue, but I think bullying is a behavioural issue that existed long before Facebook.
“I do think we have a responsibility to make sure we are providing the best tools; to make sure our policies are the best policies to help protect young people. We think about it in terms of a conversation between technology companies, parents, teachers, young people themselves. There has to be a group effort.”
While that ‘group effort’ gets a leg up thanks to Facebook, critics have pointed to the need for peer-education initiatives to be shored by clear legalisation between social media companies and the police:
“It is […] critical that the legal underpinning supports any community efforts and that the range of legal sanctions are effective deterrents against bullying,” said Emma Woollcott, legal director of British law firm, Mishcon de Reya.
“Interplay between social media providers, the police and the justice system is critical in ensuring that digital fora such as Facebook and Instagram are safe for vulnerable young people to live out their digital lives without fear of bullying or harassment.”
Facebook says it is helping to make sure those involved have access to dedicated online resources and forums. While the social network has sometimes been accused in the past of taking a callous stance towards the emotions of its users, the initiative could do a great deal to make victims of bullying feel less alone. Kieron Smith, a child ambassador for the Diana Awards, told me that his involvement in the scheme opened his eyes to how common bullying can be.
“I realised it’s about so much more than one person being bullied – that everyone experiences it nationally,” he said. “I mean, I knew that, but I didn’t know how to reach out to them. This [partnership] allows access, and shows some of the amazing things the Diana Awards does.”