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Online angels can make the web a safe place for troubled teens


Emily Bazelon

"In writing about bullying, I've seen too many posts, on several social network sites, in which teenagers suggest that ...

"In writing about bullying, I've seen too many posts, on several social network sites, in which teenagers suggest that other teenagers should kill themselves". Photo: Getty Images

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 teenagers who knew Kylie.

''Thats it. Im done,'' Kylie wrote back. @KillYourselfKylie 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 online newspaper 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 teenagers who had been goading Kylie, unless she made it clear they had apologised. When Kylie reappeared on Twitter - blessedly tweeting thank yous to her supporters - she found messages such as 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 favour 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 teenagers suggest that other teenagers should kill themselves. I find it utterly dismaying and weird - why on earth would anyone court that kind of danger? Think how these children 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 Barack Obama, however gross that is. The web can make life worse for vulnerable teenagers - 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, such as 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 behaviour 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 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The lab designed an algorithm that categorises users' stories and then helps them find other stories that are similar in terms of subject matter. The idea is that teens posting about bad online behaviour 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 teenagers, about the boundaries of online behaviour.

''We wanted to help our audience come up with their own answers,'' said Jason Rzepka, the 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. User have posted more than 350,000 story ratings and spend, on average, seven minutes on Over the Line? each visit, which on the internet is enviable.

It is the profound isolation that the Anonymous/Rustle League intervention for Kylie, and MTV's Over the Line? tool, are trying to combat. For some kids there is help to be found at home and that's still the ideal. But even the best parents can't protect their kids from everything the internet serves up.

Emily Bazelon (@emilybazelon) is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family and children. Her book Sticks and Stones: The New World of Bullying will be published next year.

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  • It is good to see that there are people & organisations out there willing to step in & help with this online. We need more of the good stuff reported on, keep it up please xD

    Date and time
    November 28, 2012, 11:54AM
    • Sorry, but calling Anonymous 'online angels' is pretty laughable. Do you guys actually know who/ what Anonymous is? At best this article implies they are a vigilante group who engage in witch hunts to out nasty teens in order to restore some sort of online justice. In reality they are so much more- they are sh*t stirrers of they highest order- they enjoy chaos for the sake of chaos (especially through hacking/ cracking) and target all sorts of organisations and individuals... Not that I'm condemning Anonymous exactly, they have pulled off some pretty funny stuff in the past- but to imagine them guardians of the innocent and and protectors of the weak is just plain naive. Also the tactics they have used in this example (swarming/ intimidation/ humiliation etc) is just another form of bullying. You don't beat bullying by getting an even bigger bully to pick on the middling bully....

      Date and time
      November 28, 2012, 12:58PM
      Comments are now closed

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