Protecting kids from internet trolls
Recently, a 15-year-old named Kylie tweeted her suicidal thoughts, and a Twitter account called @KillYourselfKylie tweeted back a series of ugly responses. These included "We have 3 b----es who should cut and drink bleach" and "I think i just made someone cut herself yayayyyy" and "We hate you just die . . . " That last note was followed by a list of six first names - apparently teen-agers who knew Kylie.
"Thats it. Im done," Kylie wrote back. @KillyYourselfKylie replied, "I WILL NEVER LET YOU IN PEACE . . . NEVER!!!"
At this point, the internet groups Anonymous and Rustle League showed up in Kylie's Twitter stream. "We'll get to work on this problem NOW," one message promised. Another one addressed itself to Kylie's tormenters, "So, you think this is FUNNY? Let me introduce you to the REAL Internet Hate Machine, you dumb-a-- bullying Twats. Game: On."
What followed, in an exchange collected by the Daily Dot, was a series of threats and mewling apologies. The Anonymous and Rustle League rescuers threatened to post the full names of the teen-agers who'd been goading Kylie, unless she made it clear that they'd apologized. When Kylie reappeared on Twitter - blessedly tweeting thank yous to her supporters - she found messages like this one waiting for her: "It's nice to see the power of twitter do good. It's a new day for you, @YayyImKyliebaby. A new beginning, with your new friends."
I'm not in favor of outing minors for their online misconduct, but I can't read the full Daily Dot account without cheering for Anonymous and Rustle League. In writing about bullying, I've seen too many posts, on several social network sites, in which kids suggest that other kids should go kill themselves. I find it utterly dismaying and weird - why on earth would anyone court that kind of danger? Think how these kids would have felt if Kylie had taken their bait. I agree with Laura Beck at Jezebel that it would have been nice to see some of Kylie's peers step up to defend her, but in their absence, I'll take the adults who showed up this time to police the internet. The personal attack on Kylie is much more harmful than spewing racism about President Obama, however gross that is. The web can make life worse for vulnerable teen-agers - and, this time thanks to Anonymous and Rustle League, it can also make life better.
Another example of good online citizenship: MTV's efforts to get kids to out themselves or people they know for crossing over from "digital use to digital abuse." This is happening on a popular app called Over the Line? The app hosts more than 6800 posts, like this one: "Okay soo this boy ask 4 a pic of me without a top on, cause he sent me a pic of his . . . I really don't want to. . . . Idk wat 2 do HELP!!!" Users can post anonymously or by name. Other users vote on whether the behavior described is over, on, or under the line - meaning, socially acceptable or not. (Being asked to send a topless photo when you don't want to: definitely over the line.)
Now MTV is rolling out a new feature, based on a partnership with a lab at MIT. The lab designed an algorithm that categorizes users' stories and then helps them find other stories that are similar in terms of subject matter. The idea is that kids posting about bad online behavior will know they have company, and with luck, will find comfort in seeing their own troubles in the context of others' struggles and solutions. It's crowd-sourcing, by and for teen-agers, about the boundaries of online behavior.
"We wanted to help our audience come up with their own answers," said Jason Rzepka, senior vice president of public affairs for MTV. "Rather than us putting up a list of digitals do's and don'ts, it's more valuable to ask them to collectively draw the line between what's innocent and appropriate, and what's not." The evidence that MTV's approach speaks to its demographic comes from the time users spend with the app. They've posted more than 350,000 story ratings and spend seven minutes on Over the Line?, on average per visit, which on the internet is enviable.
Bazelon (@emilybazelon) is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book "Sticks and Stones: The New World of Bullying," will be published next year.
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