Protecting Children Online?: Cyberbullying Policies Of Social Media Companies

Author: Tijana Milosevic
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press, 2017. 296p.
Reviewer: Raphael Cohen-Almagor | October 2018

Cyberbullying is a terribly tragic phenomenon. It is sad and tragic because it results, each and every year, in many deaths. Most of those who die are young people, adolescents. And all these deaths, without exception, were totally unnecessary. All of them could have been prevented.

The title of this book is starting: Protecting Children Online? Why the question mark? More fitting, one may argue, would be an exclamation mark. Those who would read the book will not receive a clear idea how to protect children online; instead, they will receive recommendations how not to protect them. Milosevic adopts a liberal, anti-paternalistic approach for addressing the problem. At the outset, she declares that her position is “in strong opposition to overly risk-averse and harm-emphasising approaches” to children’s involvement with technology (p. 24). Milosevic thinks that children building resilience must learn for themselves how to navigate the Internet, learn from their mistakes, and recover from accidents (p. 24). She examines the circumstances under which online risks such as cyberbullying can generate exaggerated concerns over youth’s use of technology and the consequences for different stakeholders. Two reiterated concepts are moral panic and dignity. She warns against moral panic and wishes to promote a culture of dignity which relates to preserving and promoting the dignity of children — those who are bullied as well as the bullies.

Moral Panic is a sociological term that refers to the reaction of a group of people based on a false or exaggerated perception that a cultural phenomenon, behavior or group is dangerously deviant and poses a threat to society. Moral panics do not refer to situations in which nothing gives rise to fear; instead, moral panics characterize situations that evoke a heightened level of disproportionate concern over a certain conduct or phenomenon. The scope and scale of the threat have been exaggerated and have come to be perceived as a menace to consensual societal values, morals, and/or interests. The challenge evokes calls to strengthen the social control apparatus of society by tougher rules, intense condemnation, more legislation and more law enforcement aimed to restore stability, societal peace and peace of mind.

In her Introduction (chapter 1 of this book), Milosevic warns against the tendency to use new media as scapegoats for societal ills, and against media sensationalism and exaggeration of the cyberbullying phenomenon. She emphasises that not every risk leads to harm, and that harm from cyberbullying needs to be considered in context rather than “by adopting an alarmist approach” (p. 18). In Chapter 2, Milosevic reiterates that not all cases of bullying and cyberbullying are likely to result in suicide (p. 22). At the same time, Milosevic advocates the creation of a culture of dignity, and a policy framework that balances child protection rights with those of provision and participation. Astonishingly, however, Milosevic quotes the proprietors of who excused their irresponsible conduct of promoting cyberbullying by saying that bullying is a wide cultural and social problem, that there was little that they could do to prevent cyberbullying, and that their company has been bullied by the negative media coverage (p. 5). She does not criticise these statements. Instead, she writes that their observations about bullying being a wider social problem “actually reflect some of the key tenants of dignity theory” (p. 5) adopted as the framework for her book. She argues that adopting a dignity perspective could help explain why punishing or stigmatising bullies without examining what lies at the heart of the problem may not lead to lasting solutions, but rather to cycles of humiliation and shame which in turn might result in a desire for retaliation and consequently in more violence (p. 38). Milosevic favours the adoption of regulatory tools, such as bullying-prevention initiatives and the involvement of mental health practitioners on social media rather than restrictive or punitive measures.

Chapter 3 overviews research concerning the increasing role of private intermediaries in regulating digital environments. The author invokes Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), self-regulation incorporated into companies’ business models, to ensure ethical conduct and, in the context of cyberbullying, adapting adequate policies against this troubling phenomenon in order to protect minors. I should explain that the main principles of CSR dictate integrated, sustainable decision-making, which takes into consideration the positive and negative potential consequences of decisions; obligations on the part of corporations not only to consider different stakeholders and interests but also to incorporate them into the decision-making processes; transparency that is vital for ensuring accountability to stakeholders; liability for decisions; and, enactment of remedial measures to redress harm inflicted as a result of conduct. Unfortunately, these important principles are under-developed (to use an understatement) in this book. People interested in CSR and its application to Internet technologies should look elsewhere.

Chapter 4 is puzzling due to its agenda and its selective cases. Milosevic analyses five cases of cyberbullying that resulted in suicide. She is not interested to analyse the cyberbullying phenomenon, the aggression that led to tragedy, nor is she interested to unfold the concept of the role of the environment in which bullies operate and in which the bullied live. The discussion does not relate to family and school responsibilities. She explains that she chose the five cases because they all exemplify the simplified nature of public debate around cyberbullying. The cases also demonstrate the increasing role of private companies and the “misguided legislation” resulting from the rush for action (p. 66). I think it is important to give the phenomenon of cyberbullying a face, discerning the common denominators and taking the necessary measures to ascertain that youth can enjoy a safe environment online, one free from harassment and nasty insults. It is important to understand the scope of the cyberbullying phenomenon, why adolescents are susceptible to committing suicide as a result of bullying, how to detect alarm signals, which adolescents are more likely to become victims, and what can be done to help and protect them. But people who are interested in these questions should look elsewhere. Milosevic has a different agenda.

In chapter 5, the author analyses the regulatory environment in the United States and in the European Union. She explains the regulatory structures that ensure limited liability for the Internet companies, how they came into existence, how they affect children, and, she provides examples of self-regulatory initiatives (pp. 100-102). Milosevic notes that only a handful of the 14 companies that she has surveyed participated in any self-regulatory initiative in the United States and the European Union relevant to bullying (p. 98). She does not name the handful nor the 14 companies. The analysis is lacking both depth and sufficient conclusions.

Chapter 6 is the most interesting chapter. It outlines the key findings of her research. Milosevic examines the companies’ policies, and their effectiveness in protecting children. Most social media platforms include some sort of anti-bullying, anti-abuse, or anti-harassment provision in their terms of service and community standards, guidelines and rules (p. 108). The more established a company is, or if it found itself at the centre of controversy, the more likely it was found to provide a greater degree of elaboration of its policy and enforcement tools. Milosevic argues that Facebook, YouTube and Twitter lead the way (p. 111). It is important, of course, to have responsible codes of practice, and it is no less important to enforce them. Codes without subsequent action are no more than dead letters.

In chapter 7, Milosevic analyses partnerships between social-networking companies and NGOs designed to prevent cyberbullying. While using examples from the United States and Europe-based NGOs, she raises questions about transparency and the effectiveness of self-regulation. The chapter ends without clear conclusions.

In chapter 8, the author discusses the strengths and limitations of self-regulation. She establishes the case for more transparency of social networking companies (pp. 176-177) and calls for “a more nuanced understanding of what responsibility means when it comes to platforms and against introducing government regulation that is not supported by research” (p. 188). Milosevic argues that mere content takedown is insufficient (p. 190). She questions the extent to which parents and caregivers are able to make educated and constructive choices for children (p. 190). She does not believe that legislation provides an answer to cyberbullying because the laws she examined do not provide protection to children, and they threaten the personal freedoms of adults (p. 191).

Finally, a very short chapter 9 concludes the book. Milosevic argues that “removing content, punishing individuals involved, criminalizing behaviour, or having the companies pay fines without investing in education or psychological counselling” are all merely addressing the symptoms, but not the root cause of the problem (p. 193). What is needed is education in schools and convening special workshops for young people in which they could discuss problems and concerns. She does not elaborate on these important measures. Milosevic thinks that a certain amount of exposure to risk “may be necessary for building resilience, which is part of the learning process” (p. 195) and that companies should remove underage accounts when notified (p. 196). These are rather disappointing conclusions for protecting vulnerable populations from online attacks that might cost lives.

Throughout the book, the author highlights the need for a nuanced and complex answer to cyberbullying. But she fails to provide that answer. What is most puzzling from a book that focuses on children is the little interest it exhibits in researching the cyberbullying phenomenon, the development of children and their vulnerabilities. Milosevic is seemingly not versed in the relevant research published in leading journals such as Aggression and Violent Behavior, Aggressive Behaviour, Educational Researcher, Adolescence, J. of Adolescence, J of Adolescent Health, J. of Early Adolescence, J. of Youth and Adolescence, Adolescent Psychiatry, American Psychologist, Child Development, J. of School Violence, J of School Health, and Deviant Behavior, among others. Most of the people who commit suicide as a result of bullying and cyberbullying are youth, between 13 and 19 years-old; when the personality is taking shape and social skills are forming. Research shows that teens who are different in one way or another – in dress code, sexual orientation, foreigners, with health problems – attract the attention of the bullies who exploit their evident vulnerabilities to attack and to humiliate. Teens who are mentally or physically challenged are especially vulnerable.

Milosevic is seemingly oblivious to the vast literature that shows (a) that adolescents are particularly vulnerable, as they are not fully capable of understanding the relationship between behavior and consequences, and (b) that many adolescents lack adequate ability to weigh dilemmas, evaluate choices and make reasonable decisions. Consequently, they take more risks. The combination of not having clear future plans and thrill seeking, might be detrimental to victims of bullying. Furthermore, adolescents lack adequate capacity to reason, and they are emotionally unstable. Critically, they have not developed the reliance on “gist processing” that adults tend to exhibit. They might be prone to act upon emotions rather than reason. Milosevic seems also to be unaware of the significance that peer-pressure has in the cyberbullying phenomenon. If she were to be aware of these important findings, then she might have reconsidered her statements about children building resilience, and their ability to learn how to navigate the Internet, learn from their mistakes, and recover from accidents. Responsibility and accountability should be shared by all involved: parents, school teachers and administrators, civil society organizations and business, countries and the international community at large.

Future research will benefit from longitudinal studies with a sharper focus on comparative analyses of different manifestations of cyberbullying in different countries and specific age groups; close studies of vulnerable populations (youth with health problems, different sexual orientations, minorities), and follow up evaluation of anti-bullying programs in different schools and cultures. Furthermore, future research may also examine cyberbullying among adults: in the work place, between students and students, between students and teachers, and between patients and medical professionals.

Dr. Raphael Cohen-Almagor, Chair in Politics, University of Hull, UK

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