Facebook's Response to Cyberbullying: Is it Enough?

Carrie Schmelkin : Gossip from the Hallways
Carrie Schmelkin
Web Editor, TMC

Facebook's Response to Cyberbullying: Is it Enough?

Facebook can be a lot of different things for different people – a platform to celebrate milestone achievements, a forum to help you keep in touch with long lost friends and, sadly, even a mechanism that facilitates cyberbullying.

The past few years have catalogued instances of cyberbullying, some of which have taken place on Facebook. Perhaps in an effort to rectify the problem it has unintentionally given legs to, the social networking site has announced its intentions to become a source to help prevent suicide.

Recently, Facebook announced that if you see one of your friends, or another user, post a suicidal comment or status update on his/her Facebook page, you can click a “report” button next to the posting and then answer a series of questions about whether the post was violent, harassing, hate speech or harmful behavior. In the event that harmful behavior is clicked, Facebook’s user safety team reviews the post, determines whether it is legitimate, and sends an email to the user with a phone number to a hotline and a link to start a confidential chat session.

“One of the big goals here is to get the person in distress into the right help as soon as possible,” said Fred Wolens, Facebook’s public policy manager, said in a recent article.

As part of the new system, the recipient of the suicide prevention email decides whether he/she will respond. And for those that reported the post in the first place, they will receive an email from Facebook letting them know that the social networking site has responded.

“The only people who will have a really good idea of what’s going on are your friends. So we’re encouraging them to speak up and giving them an easy and quick way to get help,” said Wolens.

I commend Facebook for taking a stand against what has quickly become one of the greatest travesties, bullying. If Facebook is where kids are then that is also the place where there needs to be intervention. Seeing a kid’s cry for help and responding to it could be just the ticket to saving someone’s life. Who is to say that when Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi posted on his Facebook account “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry” after being the victim of cruel abuse that he couldn’t have been helped.

But a system like this raises a lot of concerns. Most importantly, how easy will it be for teens to misinterpret their peers’ language, which can more often than not be hyperbolic in nature, and report a comment that was actually harmless? I can’t even count the number of times I hear teens exclaim dramatically after failing a test, “Ugh I am going to have to tell my parents about this. I would rather be dead” or when they exclaim “Going to kill myself now” after realizing that they have three tests on Monday.  

In the same vein, just as easy as it is for a user to misconstrue a harmless status update, it is just as easy for an immature kid to poke fun of Facebook’s new policy and cry wolf on the site and write that he is going to kill himself, all in the hopes of seeing if he can experience (what he deems) comic intervention. 

The danger in a system like this, that is being carried out on a site that is already too public and too personal, is that kids can greatly abuse this system and, in so doing, hurt kids who really do feel suicidal even more. When the popular kid in school decides to test out the system and jokingly post “Thinking of killing myself tomorrow,” it makes it a million times harder for a victim to actually get up there and say the same thing.

Facebook needs to tread carefully with this new endeavor. Once again, it might end up unintentionally doing more bad than good.

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