How Online Bullying is a Function of Social Media

Bullying has been around for as long as humans have and with the advent of modern technologies, it has evolved over time. The last 10 years have been a rapid succession of newer and newer social technologies that are shaping a new generation of young people who have never known anything but. And as with anything else, there are a number of extremely beneficial possibilities as a result, but also a host of negative ones that must be addressed.

Many of the ways in which people interact with social media is established by the user interface design (or UI) that software engineers across the biggest social media companies have meticulously planned. Recently, a Google ‘design ethicist‘ has made public the ways in which
these technologies hijack the blind spots and autonomous actions of our brains in order to grab our attention- highlighting the problematic practices that happen at these companies, sometimes by accident, but other times not. Tristan Harris has written extensive essays detailing these techniques and points to tricks, like that of magicians, that grab user’s attention. These
effects are magnified in the impulsive, social-craving brains of tweens and teens that are the most frequent users of many social media websites and apps. The addictive behavior that emerges from these techniques in practice is a factor in how and why many young people stay on social media even after experiencing bullying.

Often you read stories of kids on websites such as ask.fm, an anonymous question
asking platform, that makes you wonder why they didn’t just delete their account. True, many online bullying that doesn’t have any links to real life bullying could be eliminated by simply abstaining from using the platforms where this occurs, but many kids have an addiction to the slot machine-style notifications these platforms provide. These notifications manipulate the same risk-reward centers in the brain that slot machines do, but since your kids aren’t blowing 2k at a casino, this behavior often goes unnoticed.

In addition to this addiction to social media, teens become exceptionally vulnerable on social media because of another reason. Social media applications are entirely purposed as a place to display yourself to others- It is social, as the name suggests. Virtually no one creates a social media profile and then doesn’t use it to have those posts and comments be seen by friends and family. And the smart, mean kids of the bunch understand this at a fundamental level and use it to display social power and prowess. The very nature of social media is a hunting ground for bullies looking to prey on innocent victims. Additionally, there is a whole host of informal ways in which teens use social media, even evading the intent of the tech designers, that are so nuanced that one slight mix up in words can aim a target on a kid’s back.

Knowing how these platforms work, both on the design side and how they are actually used by kids, can enable you as a parent to have enlightened discussions with your kid about the harms of these technologies if not used consciously. Defining and pointing to the unconscious behaviors that people do can help your child to understand that some of their innate behaviors can be hijacked by tech designers and result in negatively affecting their mental health and well-being.