A Less Discussed Take on Cyberbullying: Building the Culture of Empathy

31 Oct , 2014  | by:

October was the national bullying prevention month in the United States and the media paid significant attention to the issue, with even Monica Lewinsky joining the anti-bullying campaign in an effort to end the culture of humiliation. Some anti-bullying campaigners criticized her involvement saying it would set back their cause because of Lewinsky’s tainted background. The latest results of the Pew Research Study on online harassment indicate the pervasiveness of this phenomenon: 60% of internet users said they witnessed someone being called offensive names; 53% have seen efforts to purposefully embarrass someone; and 24% witnessed someone being harassed for a sustained period of time (“sustained” usually being one of the requirements for researchers to label behavior as bullying).

The aftermath of Gamergate even prompted Tim Berners-Lee to express his frustration with the way the internet has developed. Berners-Lee observed:

“I think it is human nature, we have always had a wonderful side –and a dark side—and the Web is fairly accessible to those who wish to exploit it”

One response to this state of affairs is to turn to legislation to regulate cyberbullying behavior. There is no federal cyberbullying law in the US yet and states have various cyberbullying provisions, often designed primarily to protect school-age children. Canada, however, has garnered significant attention recently through its Bill C-13, which makes it illegal for anyone to transmit “an intimate image” of another individual without that person’s consent. The bill also makes it easier for police to obtain case-related metadata, and secures immunity for companies that turn over data to police. The Bill has raised significant privacy concerns, and has even cast a shadow on the motivations behind its use. University of Toronto professor Lisa Austin, who studies privacy law, explains that police can use the new provisions in investigating terrorism cases.

Efforts at creating the culture of empathy, on the other hand, receive far less public attention. One such effort is The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s partnership with Facebook aimed at helping the company to foster empathy among its users. “The way our brains work, we have evolved to understand each other by tone of voice or seeing facial expressions, but that gets lost through the devices we use to communicate,” a Facebook employee working on Facebook Protect and Care Team, told the New York Times. One of the results of the partnership is the creation of social reporting tools which allow users to tell other users that they have hurt their feelings. In addition to being asked to specify how they feel about the post, users are also provided with a polite pre-written response that they can send to the friend who offended them such as “This post is mean. It makes me feel sad and I don’t want it on Facebook.” Dr. Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence said:

“When kids let someone know they’ve hurt their feelings in a personal way, there’s a strong likelihood that the other kid will take it down.”

Since I am researching this topic as part of my dissertation, I tried and could not obtain data from Facebook on how many posts actually get taken down upon social reporting requests. Furthermore, while Facebook can afford to work on such initiatives, smaller start-ups may not be in position to do so.

I will not go into the issues of company self-regulation, effectiveness thereof, and company motives for developing such policies in this blog post. Rather, I would merely like to point out that there is something to be said about punishment vs. education. While public attention seems to be overwhelmingly focused on the former, especially in the aftermath of bullying cases that result in self-harm, the latter calls for critical reexamination of cultural values, a sustained effort at fostering a different pattern of social relations from early childhood. For instance, a nation-wide survey of 10,000 students conducted by “Making Caring Common,” a recently launched research initiative at Harvard University’s School of Education, revealed that a large majority of youth appear to value achievement and happiness over concern for others. From its website:

“When children do not prioritize caring and fairness in relation to their self-concerns –and when they view their peers as even less likely to prioritize these values –there is a lower bar for many forms of harmful behavior, including cruelty, disrespect, dishonesty and cheating.”

Framing online behavior as symptomatic of larger cultural narratives is a much neglected view in the public debate around cyberbullying.


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