After Instagram rolled out new protections against bullying on the platform, experts say that while the move could help, there’s still more parents can do to promote good online experiences for their kids.
Instagram announced the new features, vowing to “lead the fight against online bullying” — a problem that especially affects adolescents, a group that uses the platform heavily.
One of the newly available changes uses artificial intelligence to sense when people are about to post offensive comments, and asks if they’re sure they want to do so, giving them time to reconsider. Another feature will be introduced soon that allows users to “restrict” someone, meaning they can delete comments from or block the other person from posts without that person knowing. The company said it arrived at the concept after hearing feedback that users are reluctant to outwardly block a bully because it could escalate the situation, especially if they also interact with the bully “in real life.”
“I really believe companies have a responsibility to do this,” said Jonathan Singer, associate professor of social work at Loyola University and president of the American Association of Suicidology. “Tech companies have a responsibility to use technology to address the ways in which the technology can be used to hurt other people.”
Singer said the new features are a good idea, but tech companies alone cannot solve the problem with algorithms. And there are other precautions parents can take to try to combat bad online behaviors.
Cyberbullying, like other forms of harassment, can lead to higher rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues in teens, Singer said. But eliminating social media, which is often the way young people socialize and communicate, isn’t a realistic option.
He said parents should “start early” with kids already interested in social media platforms, but not by letting them get their own account. “This might look like starting an Instagram account for the family dog,” he said.
That way, Singer said, kids and parents can talk about good social media behaviors and online safety together in a shared experience.
It’s also helpful for parents to talk with other parents in their kids’ peer group about shared online philosophies and rules, and to share those discussions with the kids, he said. That way, friends can hold one another accountable and all play by the same rules.
Jackie Rhew, a licensed clinical professional counselor with Amita Health who works with adolescents, called the move by Instagram “a good start.”
“Kids, in general — especially adolescents — are so impulsive,” she said, praising the new feature that allows users to reconsider a disparaging comment.
She said these safeguards are important because kids don’t always tell their parents about cyberbullying for fear their electronics will be taken away.
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Instead, it’s important for parents to be proactive in talking with their kids about expectations online and how to respond to a bully, Rhew said. She advises parents to tell their kids to report and not to retaliate. And parents should also talk about the consequences of bullying someone, she said. “Take the time to educate and monitor.”
But Bart Andrews, St. Louis psychologist and board member of the American Association of Suicidology, thinks the new protections could actually do more harm than good.
Instead of building an algorithm to prevent an offensive comment, parents and the community should be teaching kids to “handle stress and inappropriate behavior,” Andrews said.
“Things that used to be normal, we now try to protect our kids from,” he said.
While there are extreme situations of bullying that need intervention, Andrews said, learning to handle more benign offensive comments on their own helps kids build resilience.
Andrews also said these protections could just push people to other social platforms with fewer restrictions.
Adrienne Massanari, associate professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she’s skeptical about the effectiveness of Instagram’s new features.
“This seems a little bit like it’s too little, too late. (Bullying) behavior is already ingrained in these platforms,” she said. “While this is not terrible — any attempts platforms are doing to address these issues on a whole is a good thing — I worry … this may not be effective.
“Human beings are incredibly creative,” Massanari added. “If someone wants to circumvent (the protections), there are ways to do that.”
The moves also seem like a simple solution to a complicated societal problem, Massanari said.
While technology companies can only respond in technological ways, she said, “I don’t think it’s going to be the only thing that solves this problem.”