Could these changes stop cyberbullying? Youth share their suggestions

Scientists asked high school teens to think of ways to stop online bullying. Here's what they recommended to parents, teachers and developers. Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press/File

TORONTO – Pop-up warnings that would make users think twice before posting an update. An anonymous “bully” button as handy as Facebook’s “like” button. And even a stern warning on social media sites about the repercussions of cyberbullying.

They’re only a handful of the recommendations U.S. youth offered scientists who are studying how to combat cyberbullying. The new research provides parents, researchers and developers a glimpse into what kids think of online bullying and how they think technology can intervene.

“It’s much more than gossip. It’s sending mean and cruel messages, it could be attacking, uploading images of somebody or using doctored images, promoting exclusion. There are varying degrees,” according to lead researcher Dr. Leanne Bowler.

“Bullying at the end of the day is about an imbalance of power. Young people wanted to even the playing field to help them control the situation more,” Bowler said.

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Bowler, a Canadian researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, studies youth and digital literacy, specifically how well they think, reflect and self-regulate when it comes to their words and actions behind the keyboard.

In this hands-on study, she worked with two groups: high school students who were about 15 years old and freshmen university students who just left high school.

The groups were asked to think of cyberbullying scenarios and illustrate them on big sheets of paper as if they were putting together a comic strip. When it came to online bullying, it wasn’t just words – photos and video added another layer of dimension to the bullying.

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Bowler said that her team was surprised to see adults – parents, teachers, police – play a role in the stories. In some cases, they were the ones who were key to resolving the issue but in other instances, they made it worse if they punished without looking deeper at the situation.

“To the teens, parents were playing a big part. They could be enforcers or enablers, heroes or bad guys depending on how they stepped in,” Bowler said.

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Finally, the researchers asked the groups to use post-it notes to consider when technology could have intervened to stop the bullying.  The kids thought of creating personalized anti-bullying messages, a pop-up message that would last for 10 seconds so users could reflect on what they were about to post, and even warnings that would tell users “Stop bullying today or you could be next.”

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Another idea included a “bully” button, identical to the “like” button.

Bowler said her research isn’t advocating for any of these suggestions – her findings are meant to help developers take a closer look at how kids perceive online bullying and what could be done.

“Their understanding of how [computer science] works is rudimentary. They only know what they’ve experienced,” she said.

In the meantime, Bowler plans to explore design for empathy and reflection – because cyberbullying happens behind a computer screen, kids miss the social cues or constraints that might have stopped them from bullying in real life.

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“Kids are more and more sophisticated in their ability to use digital media but they still need to learn a lot. It’s not too early to start talking about teaching empathy about social media, digital identity and privacy,” Bowler said.

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She knows it’s uncharted territory, too.

“Social media is a new thing so the lessons that come with it are new,” she said.

Bowler’s findings won her Microsoft Research’s Lee Dirks Best Paper Award at the iConference 2014 in Berlin.

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