Thinking Tech

Bullying and the unintended consequences of Facebook

Bullying and the unintended consequences of Facebook

Posting in Technology

How much responsibilty - if any - do social media sites like Facebook bear in what drove teenager Phoebe Prince to take her own life? What actions should they take?

In the wake of high school student Phoebe Prince's suicide, I have been thinking about the destructive side of Facebook, instant messaging, texting/cell phones, Twitter and other 7x24 social mediums. Prince was a 9th grader in South Hadley, Mass. who took her life after months of tormenting by classmates whose arrests this week have been big news.

Phoebe Prince. credit: CBSNews

What struck me is that there was no escape for Phoebe. Once, you could get harassed in school and take refuge at home. No more.

"Pupils said Phoebe was called "Irish slut" and "whore" on Twitter, Craigslist, Facebook and Formspring," according to a story at MailOnline.

So with Facebook and the others, there was no refuge for Phoebe unless she had uncommon willpower to avoid her cell phone and computer at home. No teenager and especially an emotionally-weakened one has that kind of willpower.

I suppose blaming social media is like blaming a telephone used to make threats or a gun in a shooting. After all, the gun doesn't shoot someone. A human has to pull the trigger. But a gun is dangerous and we have gun control, don't we?

We need to protect children from the dangers of social media. Just how is the challenge.

Indeed, Facebook's "Statement of Rights and Responsibilities" expressly states and I quote: "You will not bully, intimidate or harass any user." I can find no evidence that Facebook has pursued anybody for this egregious violation of its own terms of service in the case of Phoebe Prince.

Facebook did go after blogger and "Internet entrepreneur" Pete Warden after he apparently crawled 210 million public Facebook profiles, put them in a database and announced plans to sell the information, according to a story in NewScientist. Warden, fearing huge legal bills, destroyed the data after Facebook threatened to sue him on a terms of service violation.

So Facebook has gone after terms of service violators before. We'll see if it makes a move on the bullies that drove Phoebe over the edge. The Facebook accounts of a couple of suspects I checked on appear to have been removed (assuming they had them) although I found a "fan" site that villified one of them.

Should a teenager be required to get signed parental consent before using Facebook or other social mediums? Does my paying for unlimited texting for everyone in my family presume parental consent? Were teen suicides as common before Facebook?

Parents now have more motivation to oversee their children's activity on Facebook and other social mediums. But as a parent of two recovering teenagers - meaning they are safely in their 20s now and much more grown-up - no amount of vigilance can thwart a determined teenager.

Social media is all around our children. Their insecurities and overwhelming desire for acceptance feed into the allure of social media. What responsibility do the social media sites bear?

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure