Designing to Stop Cyberbullying: Current Solutions

Where are we now?

This is the first part of a two-part series on how design can help bystanders stop cyberbullying. You can find Part 2 here.

Smartphones and social media apps have moved a huge number of our social interactions online. Unfortunately, they’ve moved bullying and aggression online, too. It’s estimated that between 10 and 40% of adolescents are victims of cyberbullying, or repeated and intentional acts of online aggression. Even more social media users have witnessed these acts of aggression.

These witnesses, more often called bystanders, can step in to stop these incidents from happening. However, having the courage or know-how to actually step in to stop a bully is harder than it seems. In fact, recent research finds that witnesses to online aggression often pass up opportunities to intervene. Fear of retaliation, indifference, and the assumption that others will help keep witnesses silent.

Studies show that bystanders intervention can stop up to half of aggressive events. This high success rate has spurred anti-cyberbullying groups to craft tools and campaigns to empower bystanders. The push to promote “upstanding” behavior has expanded to some of the most popular social media sites.

Today’s top social media sites work to stop cyberbullying with a combination of prevention and intervention tools. They provide resources to educate users and empower bystanders to intervene against aggression.

Where are we now?

Social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have features that help bystanders mitigate the effects of aggressive posts. These online resources help users learn effective ways to stop cyberbullying, whether it happens in private or in public. Some of these features allow bystanders to anonymously “flag” or report aggressive behavior. Other features focus on providing victims or their advocates with ways to cope with bullying they experience. These sites have also created more transparent, easy-to-understand policies for online abuse and aggression.

Comprehensive Support on Facebook

Facebook’s Bullying Prevention Hub, a branch of their resource panel, offers several anti-bullying solutions. Some of these are preventative solutions, meant to stop bullying before it occurs. Facebook’s resources and infographics help kids, parents, and teachers learn to identify and stop cyberbullying. There are also question-and-answer-style scripts that help users voice empathy and support for victims. These scripts can help parents approach teachers, or kids talk to other kids involved in bullying.

When preventative measures fail, Facebook also provides users with reactive solutions. These solutions help victims, bystanders, and other advocates deal with bullying that’s already happened. Facebook shows users how to block, flag, and report certain people or posts. There’s also support for bystanders interested in assisting victims of online aggression. Facebook’s Take Action module offers tips, discussion starters, and sample conversation scripts meant to help bystanders support victims of online aggression.

Facebook’s Bullying Prevention Hub provides resources for people affected by online bullying.

Instagram and Harmful Images

Like its parent company Facebook, Instagram uses both preventative and reactive solutions to stop online aggression. The app’s community guidelines, help users understand what’s acceptable to post and what isn’t. The block and report instructions help victims and bystanders take action against offensive or aggressive posts. FAQs targeted towards teens, parents, teachers, and law enforcement help users take action against online aggression. The platform also directs users towards third party resources for identifying and coping with abuse.

Instagram’s emphasis on pictures and videos has other implications for harmful behavior. The app, and other photo-sharing platforms, can sometimes make body image or self-esteem issues worse. Instagram addresses this by providing information for identifying and dealing with body image issues. They also direct users to seek help for eating disorders or body-shaming behavior. Like Facebook’s tools, these resources can help users both prevent and act against cyberaggression.

Instagram helps users block others, share safely, and understand the impact of images.

Aggression vs. Free Speech on Twitter

Twitter’s online abuse hub, unlike Instagram and Facebook, tends toward a reactive rather than a preventative approach. The site does try to prevent harm by encouraging users to reflect on what they post. The app’s “think before you tweet” slogan promotes personal responsibility. Like other social media platforms, Twitter provides guidelines on recognizing and dealing with bullying. There are clear instructions for all types of users on how to block, flag, and report bullies.

Unlike other sites, Twitter takes pride in its pro-free-speech stance. It wants its community of users to feel comfortable speaking their minds. Unfortunately, the site doesn’t always make distinctions between free speech and bullying. It does encourage users to block and report abusive tweets. But the criteria for when the site will or will not act on these reports is unclear. For example, bullying behavior is generally repeated over time. Twitter only recommends that users only report abusive tweets after repeated offenses. This means that some users experience long-term harassment before Twitter will step in.

Twitter encourages users to block and report cyberbullying, and helps to communicate with the parents of aggressors.

Twitter’s policies have shifted to address other forms of online aggression, such as hate speech. In April of 2015, Twitter banned “any speech that could incite terrorism, racism, or violence against a person or group of people”. This change has put Twitter’s policies more in line with those of Facebook and Instagram. But this active stance on user-reported abuse still doesn’t draw a clear line between teasing and bullying. As recent high-profile cases show, many Twitter users still get away with harassment under the guise of expressing their opinions.

Of the three sites, Facebook offers the most resources for dealing with cyberbullying. Its family-focused Bullying Prevention Hub helps users identifying, discuss, and report cyberbullying. Resources are available to everyone who deals with online aggression. Kids, teens, parents, friends, teachers, and other bystanders might all find Facebook’s tools useful.

All three of these platforms offer ways to help stop cyberbullying. But they give only limited help to bystanders. Help from witnesses and peers can go a long way toward stopping aggression. What else can social media sites do to help bystanders step forward? We think the answer could lie in design.

Want to know what design solutions we think could help bystanders intervene to stop cyberbullying? Find Part 2 of this series here!

Social Media Lab graduate student Franccesca Kazerooni and undergraduate Research Assistants Dani Boris, Jordan Jackson, and Olivia Wherry contributed to this post.