Cameron’s cyber-bullying advice

Screen Shot 2013-08-09 at 00.02.56After the tragic suicide of Hannah Smith, we are all left asking huge questions about social media and the dark side of the Internet.

I was heartened when I saw David Cameron was making a statement about Ask.Fm and cyber-bullying. But as I listened to his words I wanted to throw my coffee mug out of the window and yell despairing noises into the ether.

When I started my PhD in Internet ethics people laughed and said it would have no practical use in society. I’m heartened to know it does. The dystopic realities I’ve been pondering in dusty libraries have erupted and we’re all racing to figure out where the heck a map exists to navigate this brave new world. We need great leadership, hence my excitement as I sat down to listen to David Cameron’s statement.

Cameron made the following points today [watch the video on the Telegraph site]:

“My heart goes out to the family…this is an absolutely appalling case.”

Good so far; we would all totally agree on this, which is why what comes next matters so very much. We have to get this right as a nation, to prevent future tragedies.

“First of all, the people that operate these websites have got to step up the to plate and show some responsibility in the way they run these websites.”

Yes and no. In saying this, Cameron places the blame (a) on the owners of social networks; “the people that operate”, then (b) on the technology itself; “these websites”. In placing blame in these two directions, he fails to identify the true culprit. WE are the problem; the social networks are simply a tool. We get to choose how we use these tools in our hands.

I won’t say it’s a totally neutral tool, as all mediums shape their message/usage. But just like former technological break-throughs like the invention of the printing press, or the gun, or the car, they can be used for great good or great destruction. To point the finger at the creators of these sites or at the sites themselves is to fail to point to the real problem – you and me. We are choosing to use these sites to harass, bully and destroy lives. Unless we realise we are the problem, no amount of policing or shaming certain networks will fix it.

What we need is an ethical revolution within society. I’m not peddling a religious message here, rather I believe that we need to revive the ancient Greek and Roman concept of the Virtues. We need to aspire to courage, honesty, bravery and love once again. Unless we can adopt a set of what I call ‘Virtual Virtues’ (virtues that work in this digital age), we will continue to take this new tool and run rampant in our destructive behaviours. The Internet could become heavily policed and restricted – and this is potentially another way to ‘fix’ it. But the deeper problem is in our need for Virtual Virtues; a societal ethic of goodness and love.

As has famously been said “with great power comes great responsibility”; as the tools in our hands gain greater weight and power, the onus on us to rise to the occasion with the commitment to ethics increases. If we misuse it we will probably lose it. Cyber-freedoms will be massively curbed in future if we can’t prove ourselves ethically adept enough to handle them well.

What does it mean to Cameron for those “operating these websites” to take “responsibility”? Yes, I’m in favour of proper reporting procedures and panic buttons. But from the semi-hysteria I’ve encountered among people this week, many are saying that it is all the fault of the technology. Many also have said to me that anonymity itself should be banned on social networks. Anonymity is, again, the wrong place to point the blame. Anonymity can do much good; politically oppressed nations find a voice, like the Arab Spring; those in domestic abuse find a place to ask safe questions; shy personalities find confidence to say positive things. Blaming anonymity is the wrong target – it is a tool in our hands that can be used for good or for harm. The site operators, the sites themselves, and the anonymity they allow are are not the true problem; we are.

“Second point is, just because someone does something online it doesn’t mean they are above the law…If you incite violence, it is breaking the law – whether that’s online or offline.”

Yes, it’s good news that at last threats made on the Internet are taken seriously. They weren’t when I lived in the States some years ago and was drowning in them. So it’s great that Cameron is taking threats made on social media as a serious matter. However, his use of “online” and “offline” feels too cut and dry to me. It’s what I’ve been recently been talking about a lot; the ‘broken binary’ of online and offline.

These delineations are increasingly blurry and will become so much so that the ‘on/off’ dualism we use now will be laughable in a few years time. Our technology will become a bigger and bigger part of us, in terms of dependency – and potentially physiology – that to speak of this ‘on/offline’ as a clear divide will not make sense. So I get twitchy when people make a very clear delineation between them as if they were two separate spheres.

Where does one start and the other end? I’m online, but yet I’m a very physical person sitting at the screen of my computer. I download all my messages and read them when I’m offline. My smartphone is always connected. When Google Glass hits the streets will offline already feel like a redundant concept for many of us? If we venture into Transhumanism (my PhD topic) and embed technology within us, we will never truly be ‘offline’ again. Yes Cameron was talking about the legalities of crime here. But in every context, leadership in this digital age needs to emphasise that online/offline is not dualistic but nuanced; almost inseparable and both equally real in their own way. The binary is already broken and Cameron speaking as if they are two very separate entities is unhelpful, especially in the context of what he said next…

“Also there’s something all of us can do as parents and as users of the Internet and that is not use some of these vile sites. Boycott them; don’t go there. Don’t join them. We need to do that as well”.

This was the awful crescendo for me (when the coffee mug almost became a projectile ). In the interviews I’ve given this week on Sky and BBC News, one point I’m keen to make is that switching off our gadgets doesn’t fix anything. We need long-term solutions as the problems we face are very weighty. A knee-jerk reaction for parents, naturally deeply worried by the Ask.FM story, is to say to their kids “switch that thing off; I don’t want you on there”.

Firstly, we know that banning kids from sites only makes them want to go on there more. I doubt whether many teens are wanting to boycott these sites even after such a tragedy, as social networking is more important to young people than pre-Internet-era adults will ever grasp. It’s their social lifeline; it matters as much as seeing friends face to face; it’s as real as going to parties. To be cut off from these networks, to a teen today, would be like being placed on the moon in solitary confinement.

I’d urge parents not to follow Cameron’s advice; rather than reaching for the ‘broken binary’ and hitting the ‘off’ button on your child or teen’s gadgets, think about the fact we need a long term solution here. We need to remain ON the networks and ON the gadgets and learn healthy boundaries. Just as I wrote about Twitter Silence being an odd way to deal with trolling, boycotting and walking away from things that are difficult is not going to help us solve this.

Parents, I’d urge you to allow your kids to stay on these sites as they are an important way of life for your them. Your children are “digital natives” meaning that they have grown up with digital communication as the norm. To them, it’s like breathing. A pre-Internet era life perspective would say “close that laptop and go play in the garden with your real friends”. This statement is broken on so many levels; implying that relationships online are less real; that the physical trumps the virtual, and that what happens online is trivial.

I’d encourage parents to engage MORE with these sites, not less. To become digitally literate for the sake of your kids you need to learn the networks they like, the lingo and the protocols. Don’t breathe down their necks in a way that stifles them online, but DO enter that world. At the meal table, as casually as you’d ask “how’s things at school?” make sure to ask “so how are things on Facebook/Ask.FM/Instagram”. Treat it like a real space. What happens in those spaces REALLY matter to our teens. And that could not be clearer than in the case of Hannah Smith. Disengaging is not the advice Cameron should be giving now. Boycotting  and/or blaming the technology and it’s owners gets us nowhere long-term.

We need to avoid the ‘Them vs Us’ of social network owners and work with them to improve their safety – as with Del Harvey listening to the feedback from us all on Twitter and adapting the reporting process. Rather than making them the scapegoat, or the technology, or the anonymity, we need to call for an ethical revolution of virtual virtues. And we need to stay switched ON in order to attempt that goal.

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if interested in this topic, I discussed cyber-bullying and the arguments I make in this post in two TV interviews earlier this week:

  • Martin Laker

    100% agree with what you’ve said here. It is just like telling children to not go into the playground if they are bullied there because no one can be bothered to help the bullied child in that environment. On top of that then blaming the people who should have been monitoring the playground when the only person to blame at the heart of it is the bully/troll.

  • Sue Lockhart

    Brilliant Vicky, so well put! You are an amazing ambassador and your research and interviews are invaluable. Let’s hope you can work with the Government and help find a sensible way through this digital era, without everyone getting hysterical!

  • Marc

    I agree…but then Cameron has no idea how the internet works even at a basic level, and politicians are just about sound bites with very little substance.

  • Paul Childs

    That’s like blaming Ford for road accidents!

    I read a story a few months back where a writer managed to find out who his troll was – by coincidence it turned out to be the son of a friend who had got his name from looking through his dad’s browsing history.

    instead of informing the police the writer told the parents about this and then confronted the kid with the parents present – and the kid broke down in tears saying something like “I didn’t realise it was a real person on the other end. If I had known it was someone my dad actually knew I wouldn’t have done it.”

    I’m sure this is not the case all of the time but it’s a scary thought that these bullies don’t even realise it’s a real person they are harrassing!

  • Bex Lewis

    Been enjoying your interviews on this Vicky, and this piece, although I winced hugely at the use of “digital native” as it’s been debunked on many levels. I have a section in my book on ‘The Myth of the Digital Native’ which currently ends:

    The debate is one that has rumbled on particularly on
    e-learning forums for several years. Here’s an extract from an interview with
    Mark Bullen in 2008:

    Well, my basic point is that the claims about this generation are not based on research. They are speculations that emerge from anecdotal observations and from a
    techno-utopic view of the world and a fascination with technology. I don’t
    dispute that this generation is different than previous generations. Every
    generation differs from the previous in some way. The social, political and
    technological context changes so this is bound to have an impact on the people
    growing up at that time.[1]

    Referring to the core “characteristics” of ‘digital natives’
    as a relaxed problem-solvers, multi-taskers, information focused collaborators,
    Livingstone and her team in 2010 noted that “roughly 20 per cent of our sample (at most) appeared to correspond with this stereotype.”[2]

    A more useful idea has developed from a team at Oxford
    University, led by Dave White: that of the ‘digital resident’ and the ‘digital
    visitor’, which is defined more by attitude than by age. ‘Visitors’ use the Internet
    as a tool: go in to complete a task, and leave. ‘Residents’ regard themselves
    as members of communities that exist online, rather than having access to an
    online toolbox,[3] and I am most definitely a digital resident, though I’m far too old to be a ‘digital native’.

    [1] http://www.openeducation.net/2008/09/23/net-generation-nonsense-mark-bullen-discusses-teaching-and-learning/

    [2] 2010 research

    [3] http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3171/3049

  • Rich Wyld

    Really interesting stuff – one of the questions about virtual virtues that I began to think about was the relationship between virtue and tradition. My understanding is that virtues are most comprehensible within a specific tradition that animates them. Hence, different traditions have different virtues (notably humility not being an ancient Greek virtue).

    One of the interesting things about our world seems to be the increasing overlap and intermingling of tradition. In such an environment, how might we go about working out the content of the virtues?

  • Steve Holmes

    You’ve been courageous, dignified, and thoughtful in all of this Vicky. Thank you.
    One little point, though: I think website owners bear more responsibility than you suggest here. To press your own analogy, ask.fm/Twitter are not the printing press, the new technology (that’s the internet…); instead they are more like the publishing houses set up to exploit the new technology. As such, they can properly be held responsible at some level for the content they publish.

  • Rich Wyld

    I know that you know all that by the way, but I really would love to know what your thoughts are on this

  • mistersaxon

    The manpower required to curate or moderate a site like Ask.fm would make it unworkable economically though. Perhaps it _should_ be unworkable (a different discussion) but I think a fairer analogy would be that of someone who presents a public space for the use of whoever wishes to use it. Analogue equivalent might be a park with a huge blank wall for artists, and a charge for companies who want to put up a billboard in said park.

  • Steve Holmes

    Both Twitter and FB have got into very public messes recently because they have been effectively moderating/curating content, but applying indefensible rules in doing so (Twitter suspending/deleting the accounts of those abused as well as those abusing; FB deleting pictures of breastfeeding whilst allowing violent misogynist ‘humour’). Sure, moderation won’t be perfect or instant, but these sites have been doing it effectively enough that people noticed, understood the rules they were applying, and objected to them.

  • Luke

    Agree with all the points there. Oddly though the point I
    agree the most with-the need for a transformed society-is also the weakest.
    Yes, humans are to blame for the hateful behaviour, as opposed to the inanimate
    tool used to spread it, but from time immemorial there has always been an
    underbelly and an underground where people have crept away to dark corners and
    places to plan to do things that polite society would abhor. And while I guess
    the radiance of civic ethics should ensure that those places are few and far
    between, they will always exist. People creep into dark holes because they don’t
    want to be recognised or caught, and the anonymity that these boards offer provides
    a very happy state of affairs for those people. You can quickly segue from
    light to dark too. Even if you’re usually a positive contributor if someone
    gets on your wick you can be unpleasant to them without having to worry about
    any real social isolation or stigma that you would get if you started to be unpleasant
    to someone somewhere public.

    Just as the concept of classical and civic moral virtue had
    a large and overt emphasis on policing and managing social evils, there should
    be a very overt focus on ensuring that social networking sites reward good and
    punish bad, and systems whereby the former flourishes and the latter is
    targeted. Civic virtues need to be energetically cultivated and encouraged, and
    to an extent even imposed. Just relying on people’s better nature has never
    worked, and it won’t now.

  • http://sipech.wordpress.com/ Sipech

    I think the most worrying sentence here is, “If we venture into Transhumanism (my PhD topic) and embed technology within us, we will never truly be ‘offline’ again.” If I come across as a Luddite, it’s because I am, but it does read rather like a starting point of a dystopian fiction, in the same vein as Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ or Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’.

    I think we can be truly offline and that that is a healthy thing. For my part, I love hiking, yet I don’t consider myself plugged in. The most technologically advanced thing I take with me is a compass, which I rarely need to use.

    Any new technology needs a time of bedding in and we come to a fairly reasonable balance with most. What makes social media that little bit different is the rate at which it changes, so coming to a rest (like a damped simple harmonic oscillator) is likely to take some time.

    Though I would agree that kneejerk banning is not the right approach, I would advocate a need to take some time out, to step away from the screen for a time. When it comes to children, especially, I am hesitant to advise as I am an uncle, not a parent. In principle, I’m in favour of parents setting limits and gradually easing them off as they get older, allowing them the space to make mistakes and even to get slightly hurt. Maybe some readers who are parents have tried this and know better than I whether it works or not.

  • mistersaxon

    Those are two of the largest social media sites in the world (citation needed) and Ask.fm is not. The economic scale of FB & Twitter is undeniable and they do have the resources to police themselves but, as I said, the manpower required to moderate a site like Ask.fm would make it unworkable economically. If that is the future landscape of social media then it will rapidly stagnate IMO, due to a lack of the features that enabled it to grow in the first place – flexibility, openness, anonymity (and yes, it is necessary – see main article) and innovation. If we insist that every social media site is run like Facebook we will soon only have Facebook. That may be desirable or not (Google Monopolistic abuse of Power) but that is not the point being debated here I think. If automatic curation were possible and reliable enough then we would still have to have a discussion about the level of curation / moderation to be applied. Do we want a single global standard? Are there things that cannot be said in ANY culture? in EVERY culture? Who sets those rules that will control your speech online? Who polices the rule-setters? The alternative is grass-roots moderation by friends / family / self and a robust set of tools for reporting abuse and a good methodology for handling it – personally and professionally. This would be another aspect of the Virtual Virtues discussed above I think. It’s a fascinating subject and you can see why Vicky wants to study it!

  • Pete Butland

    Superb Vicky, insightful and relevant.
    I’m a teacher, and I think this reflects a bigger issue. Somewhere down the line, parents have reached the conclusion that parenting involves protecting and shielding their kids from the realities of life. So, parents will give their kids a treat to help them deal with a disappointment (I’ve seen parents buy their child a new football kit because they didn’t get picked for a team), they’ll tell their child not to go near another child with whom they’ve fallen out (rather than giving them strategies to improve the situation and co-exist), and, as you’ve suggested, they’ll ban a child from something if they haven’t used it appropriately. What we’re left with is children, teens and adults who have never developed the emotional and social tools to deal with issues they face in life, as their parents have just removed problems for them, rather than allowing them to experience them and learn to deal with them.
    On the other extreme, I’ve heard lots of parents say “I don’t understand all this stuff, it’s too technical for me”, and then shrug their shoulders as if that’s the end of it. Actually, as parents, we have to empower ourselves by finding out about it all so that we can engage appropriately with our kids. Not to police them, but to help them develop and apply those ‘virtual values’ you refer to.
    Thanks Vicky – great blog.

  • Beth

    Ooh! Where to start! Firstly, David Cameron is not an especial pal of mine, and I found his choice to be interviewed in a health setting (let’s hope it was the NHS) distracted me from what he was actually saying, which could be a merit or demerit, depending on your point of view.

    Secondly, the printing press. We are regulating it. Not very well, as lads mags are still available in supermarkets and the biggest literary hit of last year was practically a soft pornographic novel.

    Newspapers are underpinned by a legal model, and peer regulated, which has got them into hot water of late, and these supervisory systems are supplemented by their important commercial backbone, which relies on advertisers. So if our precedent is the print media when talking about online publication, David Cameron has taken an unusual step in calling for a commercial boycott. But if his team are seriously worried about further deaths I can understand his concerns.

    His course of action today does suggest he suspects the financial might of Ask.fm to be flimsy. I can’t imagine a Prime Minister calling for a veto of news publications or entertainment magazines (remember the Duchess of Cambridge pics taken in France and then syndicated just about everywhere!) Therefore, this short speech would appear to be a stop gap strategy, to literally stop teenagers falling through gaps in parental online omniscience. After all, holidays are times when teenagers of working parents are likely to be particularly vulnerable.

    I think we should invoke civil society to deal with abusive behaviors which may become uncivil and therefore ungovernable. That may mean lobbyists and academics like yourself are involved in campaigning for a clear agenda with respect to the internet. Republicanism may have a contribution to make, but I’d suggest it would probably be a long-term and legal one, perhaps pursued through the educative measures you suggest: a carrot and stick approach.

    Apologies for the long reply. This story rattled me, as I suffer from poor mental health myself, and found myself empathizing with the poor child who lost her life.

  • Andy G

    Great blog Vicky. The problem is most definitely us not the technology/tools. Unfortunately changing us is a big ask for the government so its much easier for David Cameron and his colleagues to blame technology. As a parent, and from this week a grandparent, I believe we have to energetically participate in the changing world we live in and embrace the enormous potential technology offers. We especially need to be active and dedicated to safeguarding our children in this virtual environment just as we are, I hope, in the physical environment. I would disagree with you on one point. As a person who grew up in the television age and saw the threats posed by excessive square box watching, I believe we face similar threats in the social media age. While there is generally a more two-way relationship involved in social media its still better for children (and adults) to get outside and interact with God’s wonderful creation, including each other, in person.

  • CynicusInExile

    “That’s like blaming Ford for road accidents!”

    Yes -or for road rage or fatalities caused by boy racers.

  • R Tedstone

    SOOO AGREE!

  • loozeta (Lorraine)

    When the guys whom created the coding for the internet, there were no constraints, it was free, they did not profit.
    The multi-millions of profit that occurs is in the control of flow on the net. There are international cartels rubbing their hands at all this debate, They are just waiting to control, not just for profit either.
    I know you have taken abuse, and I feel for it. Women in church particularly use patriarchal hegemony as a jealousy tool. ‘I am suppressed therefore you will be’. You have my prayers for strength for this.
    Your family history should be your warning. Dr Beeching was the fall guy for short term rationalisation for profit, and boosted the car industry. If you are comfortable in being a pawn in this debate by placing yourself the media forefront then so be it.

  • Jason

    It’s a sad, sad thing that happens almost on a daily basis (that we here about) but It seems like there is almost no hope for the victims of cyber bullying. Cause the internet and cyber interaction has become a part of us so much that we can’t take it away. So the only thing we can do is monitor those who are being bullied whether that’s a friend, teacher or parent. There has to be a way to control and ultimately but a stop to this.

  • Simon Martin

    My friend Chris Bamborough is a gifted cartoonist, and his latest cartoon is just right for you, Vicky. I hope you enjoy it! See https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152120471504689&set=gm.10151574512822546&type=1&relevant_count=1&ref=nf

  • David Young

    I agree that the websites are not totally to blame although in the case of Ask.fm they do not help matters by granting anonymity to message senders.My attitude to trolls is ignore them and block them.After all who cares what a bully on the other side of the world thinks about anything anyway.If the cyber bullies are local ie people who the child is dealing with in real life then it is a matter for parents,schools and the police to deal with.But if all else fails just stay away from these websites.

  • http://www.submitthedocumentary.com/ Roxy Mize

    Obviously Cameron has no interest in addressing the roots of the problem. Great post, Vicky, and great interview too.