How should Facebook and MySpace handle cyberbullying?

The new world of online cruelty.
March 25 2010 3:01 PM

How Should Facebook and MySpace Handle Cyberbullying?

Plus: Which site is better at it.

When it comes to bullying, what should we expect of Facebook and MySpace?
When it comes to bullying, what should we expect of Facebook and MySpace?

One 13-year-old kid's bad day started like this: He was called into the school office and questioned about insulting and R-rated comments about his classmates posted on his Facebook page. The boy told the administrators he wasn't even on Facebook. But the page had the boy's name and photos on it. Who else could it belong to?

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

A year later, the boy and his parents still don't know the answer to that question. His mother says that while at first she wasn't sure, she figured out that the Facebook account wasn't her son's from the date and time stamps on the posts, because she knew he hadn't been at a computer at those moments. (The photos, it turned out, came from a friend who thought the page was real.) "Our son is STILL upset and withdrew from social interaction outside school," his mother writes. "He doesn't know who to trust because he doesn't know who did it, and was probably most hurt that we and his teachers initially thought it was him."

Facebook took down the fake page after the mother sent e-mails to the site's inbox for reporting abusive content, but Facebook "does not have a contact number where you can talk to anyone," she complained. "They did not answer any of the e-mailed questions, they only took down the page." She is most upset that Facebook wouldn't tell her who the impersonator was. "In my mind I feel unresolved, because we don't know who did this. It's like the perfect crime. You can wreck someone's life or future, certainly impact their relationships, with impunity."

What's fair to expect of Facebook, or any social networking site, when kids use it as a weapon against each other? Some parental frustration is directed at the federal law that prevents the sites from identifying their users (unless you have a subpoena in hand). Given that law, the main remedy Facebook and other social network sites can offer is taking down an offending post or page and punishing the person who put it up, either with a warning or by deleting their whole profile.

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How and when social network sites go about such policing of their users is up to them. Do the sites take such matters seriously? I compared Facebook and MySpace. According to the child advocates I talked to, MySpace—in spite of its lower-rent reputation—has led the way on this issue. "MySpace got negatively branded, but I think it's safer for young people," says Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.

MySpace let teenagers 13 and older onto the site before Facebook allowed youngsters to sign up. In 2006, after bad press and criticism from state attorneys general about the risk of adults preying on teens, MySpace brought in a former federal prosecutor, Hemanshu Nigam, to rework its safety, security, and privacy settings.

Willard talked me through the features she likes: Privacy and commenter-blocking settings that are easy to navigate and good safety tips, like "Don't post anything that will embarrass you later." Also, "the default setting for 13- to 15-year-olds is set to keep comments hidden," Nigam says, which means only the page's owner sees them. The default setting for posts by teens younger than 18 is "private," which means they control who sees them. MySpace uses an algorithm to patrol for users who are lying about their age and says it deletes hundreds of such accounts each week. The site also has monitors who patrol it, trying to detect problems on their own. Nigam said these monitors give high priority to obscene photos and to postings about suicide or runaways and alert the authorities when they find them. MySpace also provides a 24-hour phone hot line, as well as an e-mail inbox, for parents and schools to report posts they think are abusive. MySpace staffers reply to messages sent to the inbox.

Facebook is straightforward about why it doesn't have a hot line for handling complaints. "To be honest, we don't spend a lot of time getting back to people," said Joe Sullivan, the site's chief security officer. "Our priority is reviewing the content and removing it if we think it's inappropriate." This didn't satisfy the mother whose 13-year-old son was impersonated. "I literally spent HOURS on this situation, a 15-minute phone call would have gone a long way," she wrote to me.

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