Cyberbullying is the scourge of social media. Apps like Yik Yak and sites like Facebook make it far too easy for teens and tweens to pile on with hurtful posts and comments. Banning social media is certainly not the answer, but so is throwing up our hands in a defeatist, technology-can’t-be-stopped shrug.

Why not instead use technology itself to prevent bullying? That’s what some teens in a recent study proposed.

University of Pittsburgh researcher Leanne Bowler and her colleagues Eleanor Mattern and Cory Knobel of the University of California Irvine invited high school and college students to participate in focus groups on cyberbullying behavior. Participants were asked to create fictional accounts about “mean and cruel behavior” online, and how the story might be different if social media were designed differently.

“I want to understand what happens, technologically speaking, that does or does not allow young people to reflect before they act,” said Bowler.

Bowler hopes her research, which won this year’s Lee Dirks Best Paper Award at iConference, the annual gathering for scholars interested in information sciences, can offer “a road map toward positive technologies.”

The students’ narratives led to several design ideas. For example, in instances of potential cyberbullying, they suggested adding a pop-up that remains open for 10 seconds with a message asking, “Why do you like this?” The pause could create the opportunity to stop and think before posting something nasty.

Participants noted that “everything spiraled so fast,” said Bowler. “We were trying to ask the kids, what would make people stop and think before they pressed the button?”

Design elements that encourage reflection touch on Bowler’s core research interest: meta-cognition, or how people think about their own thinking.

“When you’re not aware, you just go on and on,” continuing the same behaviors, which in a social media context could lead to cyberbullying, said Bowler, adding that “raising self-awareness is a really important piece” of prevention.

Students also came up with ideas that were more stick than carrot, such as creating a “bully button” that would allow people to flag a bullying situation with comments such as, “REALLY mean comment,” or injecting some fear in the encounter and encouraging personalized pop-up messages, such as “Mindy, you’re being watched,” that would remind the user comments are monitored.

They also thought that anti-bullying messages should be loud, even irritating, to grab someone’s attention. Finally, they thought there should be a mechanism to alert Facebook or app developers when offensive words are used, or when too many likes are logged in a short period of time—a potential red flag for cyberbullying (or a cute kitty photo; a human would, ideally, step in and review).

Fostering empathy for victims is also important, especially in online environments where anonymity and lack of direct feedback can distance young people from the emotional impact their actions have on others.

“There’s no likelihood they’ll be detected and found accountable. That leads to a reduced empathic response,” Bowler noted.

A related idea is that cyberbullying involves more than just the bully and the victim.

“We have to think of it as a circle, in much more complex terms,” said Bowler. “Bystanders have a really important role to play.” Several of the design themes that the youth created offer a clear acknowledgement of the important role of the bystander and the inherent social nature of bullying.

The paper’s authors describe seven emergent design themes that came out of the participants’ recommendations: design for reflection, design for consequence, design for empathy, design for personal empowerment, design for fear, design for attention, and design for control and suppression.

Bowler hopes social media designers will take this research into account as they develop new apps. And if they don’t, she might design some solutions herself, especially those that promote reflection and empathy.

“I’m really interested in empathy,” said Bowler. “I think that is a silver bullet that might solve a lot of problems with meanness and cruelty on line.”

Photo/ Summer Skyes