Bullying in the Digital Age

February 27th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

An anti-bullying movement takes root online, working to put an end to cruelty on the Internet.

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The Responsibility Project

Cyberbullying has been a hot topic for discussion on The Responsibility Project for some time. We’ve written about parents being held responsible for their kids’ bullying; bullying moving from the schoolyard to the cubicle; and we’ve interviewed psychologist Joel Haber, author of “Bullyproof Your Child For Life.” Bullying, Haber told us, has been forever changed by technology. He said, “It has increased the number of kids involved in bullying, and the anonymity of it means that kids do it without seeing a reaction, so there are fewer social cues to regulate it…Kids have no safe place anymore.”

In 2012, Consumer Reports estimated that 800,000 minors had been bullied or harassed on Facebook in the previous year. While there are rules, it’s exceedingly difficult to regulate behavior on Facebook. Another estimate from Consumer Reports placed 5.6 million Facebook users under the age of 13, the minimum eligible age for joining the site.

A recent article in The Atlantic reports that bullying has become so brutal and dangerous that experts at Facebook, computer scientists at MIT, and even hackers are hunting for solutions to the problem. For kids that previously had nobody behind them, an expert community is coming to their aid.

Henry Lieberman, a computer scientist at MIT, is trying to create an algorithm that catches potentially damaging material before it is posted. Scrolling through thousands of YouTube comments on controversial videos, his team found that “bullies aren’t particularly creative.” About 95 percent of comments fell under one or more of six categories: appearance, intelligence, race, ethnicity, sexuality or social acceptance and rejection. Lieberman’s goal: to find bullying and conflict that go destructively viral. To that end, he is building a “kind of air-traffic-control program for social networking sites, with a dashboard that could show administrators where in the network an episode of bullying is turning into a pileup.”

A group of hackers, too, operating under the name Anonymous, have risen to defend victims of bullying on Twitter. While Twitter bans direct and specific threats and can block IP addresses, it does not have an explicit rule against harassment and intimidation. The work of Anonymous has begun #OpAntiBully, an operation that runs a Twitter account providing resource lists and links to abuse-report forms. Depending on the case, between 50 and 1,000 people can bombard an abusive user or offer support to a target.

Cyberbullying has reached new heights, and an all-out cyber-war seems inevitable. What can be done about solving the root of the problem, before bullies even get online? Weigh in here.