Ideasroom

Why Facebook is a playground for bullies

The social media giant is designed to perpetuate outrage and should be held more accountable for anti-social behaviour, writes Victoria University's Alex Beattie 

Thirteen-year old Christchurch girl Chelsea O’Byrne died in a suspected suicide in 2017. We learnt last week in a court case related to her death that she was bullied on Facebook.

The judge in the case, brought under the 2015 Harmful Digital Communications Act, ordered O’Byrne’s teenage bully to delete her Facebook account. This ruling has raised a debate about how far Facebook should go to prevent harassment.

Facebook’s existing strategy is to monitor and remove hate speech. This only addresses the consequences of bullying and not the causes. To quote a term often said in New Zealand, it’s the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

Facebook could be more proactive, given that in its current form it perpetuates outrage and scandal and divides users. Put it this way, the social media giant is no safe space, but a breeding ground for anti-social behaviour.

The key to understanding Facebook is understanding what it’s designed for.

Facebook isn’t designed to promote robust debate or polite conversation. It’s made to trap you there. Facebook hires scores of behavioural scientists to understand your online behaviour with the aim to increase your time on the site.

This is because Facebook is predominantly funded by advertising, meaning you are the product, not the customer. And the more time you’re on it, the more advertising money it makes.

I’m not just talking about the personalised ads you see. On Facebook, the newsfeeds are deliberately bottomless, videos auto-play and notifications are coloured red. It’s all designed to keep you scrolling and expose you to as many ads as possible.

Even when you manage to leave, notifications are deployed at random intervals to convince you to come back, as this increases the chances of turning your Facebook use into a habit.

Research suggests there are links between heavy social media use and poor mental health. The UK Royal Society of Public Health recently warned that social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook inspire feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and self-loathing.

We must start comparing Facebook to environments like supermarkets or casinos. Places that are designed to nudge certain behaviours for the sake of economic gain.

This is because the ideal life no longer sits within glossy weekend magazines, but rather in the personalised news feeds of our friends and peers. It’s here that we’re bombarded with body shapes or job promotions we think we should have. And no one ever reminds us that these are painstakingly curated and void of any plain or ugly moments.

Teenagers are especially vulnerable in their awkward formative years. Thanks to their smartphones, any boundaries between school and home collapse.

I can recall the relief I felt as a teenager when getting home from school, knowing I didn’t have to deal with the pressures of fitting in until the next morning. But today any teenager with a social media account takes the playground with them everywhere they go. The pressure must be relentless.

Despite the changing landscape, the anti-bullying commentary is stuck in the past: many argue that individuals and parents remain responsible for monitoring social media use.

Secondary Principals’ Association New Zealand Vice-President Vaughan Couillault told Stuff that blaming Facebook for bullying would be like blaming the manufacturers of marker pens for the things that were written with them.

This analogy ignores how Facebook became a multi-billion-dollar business. If Facebook is a marker pen, it’s the world’s smartest one: a communication device with unprecedented surveillance capabilities that provides a window into the lives of others and exploits our social inclination to fit in and be accepted.

On Facebook, our social worth is quantified, reduced to ‘likes’ and emoticons. Posts that don’t acquire sufficient attention become synonymous with shame. The Washington Post once reported that it’s become common for American teenagers to delete Instagram posts that don’t acquire over 100 likes.

But the pressures of connection are lost when comparing Facebook to a marker pen. A better analogy is to think of Facebook as a playground that encourages toddler-play. Somewhere for you to scream and rant, act first and think second.

We must start comparing Facebook to environments like supermarkets or casinos. Places that are designed to nudge certain behaviours for the sake of economic gain.

It’s well-established that supermarkets hide the bread and milk out back to maximise the chances of you buying other things along the way. Similarly, Facebook hides the privacy settings to minimise the chances of you becoming less social.

And then there’s those little ticks that pop up after each message on Messenger or WhatsApp. These are known as ‘read receipts’ and reveal when you’ve read someone’s message and pressure you — subtly — to respond.

If we want to be more social to each other online, maybe it’s time we started thinking about what sort of hyper-social environments we’re hanging out in.

The buck should stop with Facebook to create a place that encourages meaningful interaction, instead of just lots of it.

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