Pitt study explores handling online bullying

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Targets of cyberbullies face an invisible enemy and widespread public harassment in front of their social network friends. But what if social networks such as Facebook or Twitter could build tools into their frameworks as a line of defense against cyberbullying?

A University of Pittsburgh study exploring cyberbullying came up with a framework for guiding the design of social media that could counteract or prevent mean and cruel behavior online.

The research team was led by Leanne Bowler, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences, and included graduate student Eleanor Mattern and former Pitt faculty member Cory Knobel, who's now assistant adjunct professor of informatics at the University of California at Irvine.

The research paper -- "Developing Design Interventions for Cyberbullying: A Narrative-Based Participatory Approach" -- received Microsoft Research's Lee Dirks Best Paper Award at iConference 2014, an international information science conference that was held in Berlin.

Bullying has been around for a long time. But cyberbullying adds new layers of threat and intimidation that go far beyond a physical confrontation at school or on the street. Technology in the 21st century gives bullies powerful tools -- cell phones, instant or text messages and social media sites -- with which to attack others.

There's no hiding place from cyberbullying. "It doesn't stop at your door when you walk in the house. It comes into your house," Ms. Bowler said.

The number of people who can see the messages also increases dramatically online, and there's potential for constant replication of the message.

The Pitt study involved two focus groups -- one group of University of Pittsburgh undergraduates and a group of teens between the ages of 14 and 17.

They were asked to map out several cyberbullying scenarios. The stories weren't real examples of cyberbullying that they had experienced firsthand or heard of from friends: They were asked to create a story based on what they would imagine the experience would be like for someone else.

The students sketched out the scenarios on storyboards. Then they came up with themes that could be added to social media sites, using sticky notes to write down their ideas for design interventions and placing them on the point in the story where they should be implemented on a social media site.

"Bullying in any format is basically about power and an imbalance of power," Ms. Bowler said. "Their design suggestions really tell us that young people want to even the playing field, to really get control of the situation a bit more."

The seven strategies included encouraging the would-be cyberbully to reflect before posting something, pointing to the consequences, encouraging a sense of empathy for the victim's suffering, giving bullying targets a sense of empowerment, instilling fear of punishment, attention-getting messages and elements that would control or suppress cyberbullying content.

Their ideas included a pop-up message that would last 10 seconds, forcing the person posting to stop and reflect on his actions.

Another was designed to instill fear, with the message "Stop bullying today or you could be next," indicating that their online behavior is being watched.

One idea they came up with is a "bully button." Like Facebook's Like button, it could be used to draw attention to instances of online bullying.

Other suggestions included a design that could control and suppress objectionable content, such as filters for offensive words or images.

Ms. Bowler said some of these ideas have downsides, like the bully button, which could become a tool for bullying itself. She says emphasis should be placed on the positive design elements, which encourage reflection and empathy. "Just the exercise of doing that can help kids slow down. You would get kids to reflect on their own behavior and the nature of cyberbullying. I think they should start to think critically about the actual design of the software they use, and how it might shape their behavior. It can get kids to think about the nature of the technology they're using."

The study yielded several interesting insights. Adults tend to view cyberbullying as a separate phenomenon. In contrast, "Teens tend to see a lot of the meanness in social media as one part of the everyday drama in their social lives," she said.

The students involved in the study observed that conflict between online bullies and their targets is not just a two-way struggle, but involves a community of virtual bystanders or witnesses as well. These people can become part of the cyberbully gang, sometimes feeding into the bullying frenzy themselves. Or they can be defenders, who in turn can become victims.

Bowler emphasizes that the study isn't recommending that Facebook or other social media sites should implement any or all of these design tools. "We're saying this is what social media looks like from a young person's perspective. People who design social media should use these design themes as guides and constraints in the design process, to take these messages and translate them into some kinds of working designs that would address young people's concerns and values."

Adrian McCoy: amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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