Social networks are often cited as a source of bullying, particularly among teens, where the prevalence of Facebook and Twitter users means that there is a huge pool of people to interact with. Sites like Facebook create great opportunities for friends to interact and to share experiences, but there is also a growing perception that they are making it easier for bullies to target their victims.
A teenager from Birmingham, UK hanged himself in May 2010. It was alleged that he had been the target of threats, both verbally and on Facebook.
In March 2010, nine teenagers from Massachusetts were charged with the death of a 15-year old fellow student named Phoebe Prince, who killed herself after undergoing months of merciless bullying. The victim was said to have been persecuted in person and online.
Stories such as these are becoming more common, highlighting the issue of bullying on social networks. In the UK, the Direct Gov website, which offers government advice on all public services, now includes a specific section dedicated to offering advice on bullying on social networks.
The question is whether sites like Facebook make bullying easier, or whether they just provide a new outlet for an existing problem.
Facebook potentially makes it very easy to find people. It makes it easy to leave a public record of a very hurtful comment, or to post an abusive picture. It makes it easy for lots of people to do that at once. More worryingly, it also makes it easy for bullies and abusers to do so anonymously, as they can easily set up fake accounts, post abusive messages and torment their victims, without revealing their identities. Of course, parents can help protect their teens by becoming part of their social networking activities. They can encourage their children to use the appropriate privacy settings, to report any abusive activity and to share details of who they are meeting and when.
Social networks provide a much easier way for bullies to confront victims. Cruel jibes can seem much more effective when written down and presented back on a screen, and by overwhelming their victims with the sheer volume of messages and abusive accounts, it’s easy for victims to feel that the situation is growing out of proportion. Crucially, social networks have the ability to follow victims around in ways that would not normally be possible. Teens access their Facebook pages throughout the day and night, from home, school and increasingly on their smart phones. A harassing presence from a bully is therefore more able to persist and get under somebody’s skin, as there is no apparent respite from the torment. What should be something personal and fun quickly becomes sour.
The pressure to conform, for teens, can also exacerbate the issue. By opting not to have a Facebook page, for example, teens may not always find the answer they are looking for. By freezing their victims out of social networks, bullies are often even more able to isolate and abuse them. Ignoring Facebook isn’t necessarily going to be the answer. Indeed, social networks can provide a strong degree of support, countering some of the claims that they breed bullies and torment.
The technology available on social networking site therefore creates new ways to bully victims, and, by adding a layer of anonymity, makes this harder to address. By creeping into different parts of the victim’s life (school, home, work) bullying on social networks can also be much more persistent and invasive. Facebook may not create the bullies, but it does create a set of tools that greatly increase the impact of their activities.