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Yesterday a number of technology and media companies announced new anti-bullying efforts, in conjunction with the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention. Most notable among these were the social networking giant Facebook and the popular Q&A site Formspring.

Anti-Bullying Efforts at Facebook

Facebook announced two improvements intended to make the site safer for users. The first is the addition of more educational resources to its Safety Center. The second is more substantial -- a "Social Reporting" tool that lets users report harmful content not only to Facebook itself, but to friends, teachers, parents, and other trusted members of their personal support network.

This is an important addition because it gives the user a variety of options when s/he runs into a problem on the site other than just flagging or blocking someone. "Social reporting is a way for people to quickly and easily ask for help from someone they trust," says Facebook. "Safety and child psychology experts tell us that online issues are frequently a reflection of what is happening offline. By encouraging people to seek help from friends, we hope that many of these situations can be resolved face to face."

Anti-Bullying Efforts at Formspring

For its part, Formspring announced it would be collaborating with MIT Media Lab to help develop tools to better identify "problematic content" on its site. The Q&A site has received a lot of attention as a forum for teen bullying and harassment as danah boyd explored in an article last year.

Like Facebook, Formspring is building better educational resources and reporting tools so that harassment is easier to identify and report.

Addressing Bullying, Not Just Cyberbullying

No doubt, the anonymity afforded by some online communities (like Formspring), the potential virality of online content (a YouTube video that millions of people can see), the inability to escape from bullies (you're not safe once you leave school, as the bullies can follow you home, to your computer screen) -- these have all served to change the scope of bullying.

But it's wrong to conflate the technology with the harassment. It's wrong to argue that it's simply a matter of teens' access to Internet technologies that has facilitated bullying and created victims.

There are a lot of issues at play when it comes to bullying -- home life, cultural biases, psychological issues, the list goes on. The suicide rate among gay teens isn't high because of online harassment, for example; it's a reflection of a homophobic society. Too frequently, I think, bullying is tied to "cyberbullying," as though somehow the technology -- and not the underlying behavior or attitude -- is the problem.

Although the President was joined by a number of tech companies yesterday, it was good to see that the emphasis was on the bullying and not the "cyber." When the President spoke out yesterday, introducing the anti-bullying initiatives, he shared anecdotes from his own childhood being harassed by peers, saying that "with big ears and the name that I have, I wasn't immune. I didn't emerge unscathed."

I'm not sure many of us emerged unscathed, but the ubiquity of bullying certainly doesn't make it okay. So I applaud the administration's and tech companies' efforts to promote anti-bullying education and to build support networks for kids. We do need to find ways to address the harassment, and we can't simply expect the websites where kids congregate to be solely responsible for monitoring and curbing bad behavior.

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Audrey Watters


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