Facebook has rolled out a tool to address online harassment that some digital safety advocates are calling a beneficial, but belated, first step.
The social networking site with 1.2 billion users worldwide released a "bullying prevention hub" this week. It's essentially an online resource center with suggestions for teens, parents and educators on how to address bullying — both online and off — and take action on Facebook.
The site is also beginning to roll out more options for teens to report when posts are making them uncomfortable.
The idea is to build on Facebook's existing tools, says company spokesman Matt Steinfeld.
For example, the site unveiled social reporting in 2011, which encouraged users to send a message to a friend asking for help or ask another user to take down a photo. The latter was particularly successful, Steinfeld says: 83 percent of the time, if you reach out to a user who has a photo you don't want to be in, that user will take it off.
"We were pretty impressed when we rolled out social reporting a couple of years ago that people were willing to engage with each other, as long as we suggested some text to use," he says.
And Facebook hopes this will be true of bullying as well. The hub gives suggested conversation starters for victims ("Hey, NAME – that comment wasn't funny. I don't like it, please take it down"), as well as for people who are accused of bullying and people who witness it.
"There's a lot of literature on how people interact face-to-face. ... What we're trying to do is apply those studies to an online setting. And it's tough," Steinfeld says. "People are really hungry for help."
Innovative, Or Too Late?
Jim Steyer is CEO of Common Sense Media, an organization that promotes safe technology and media for kids, and he says he's glad to see Facebook taking positive steps toward combating online harassment. He also says this should have been done earlier.
"We think cyberbullying is an enormous challenge facing every young person," Steyer says. "Facebook has been a big part of the problem in this area."
But Facebook's Steinfeld says the company is serious about the cause. "Bullying prevention has been something we've worked on for a long time," he says. "We're the first Internet company that's putting bullying prevention resources in the heart of the product itself."
Other Internet companies are, more and more, taking the blame for recent bullying-related teen suicides.
Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a 12-year-old girl who died in September, had been harassed on Facebook, The New York Times reports. But after her mother closed Rebecca's account, the bullying returned viciously on other social messaging applications, like Ask.fm, Kik and Voxer.
London's The Telegraph also links Ask.fm — a site where people can ask each other questions, often anonymously — to several teen suicides in Britain and Ireland.
It's part of a larger teen migration away from Facebook, Steyer says.
Last week, the company's chief financial officer, David Ebersman, told analysts that although usage among U.S. teens overall has been stable, "we did see a decrease in daily users, specifically among younger teens."
Earlier this fall, financial services firm Piper Jaffray reported that 23 percent of teens thought Facebook was the most important social network, down from 42 percent last fall. And 17 percent of teens say social networks other than Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Tumblr or Pinterest were the most important, up from only 2 percent a year ago.
According to Common Sense Media, middle schoolers are most affected by online harassment. So will an anti-bullying campaign on Facebook affect the age group that needs it the most?
"There are enough teens still on Facebook that it could," says Jennifer Harstein, a psychologist who works with adolescents and digital behavior. "And maybe it's a good model for other sites that teens are now going to."
Steyer says the effort will be most effective when it spreads to Instagram, which Facebook owns, and beyond. "These sites have to take way more responsibility for this."