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Amy Iverson: In the fight against online bullying, Facebook and Instagram have some new tactics

Nearly everyone with a public social media account has received a negative comment on one of their posts. I’ve received many. Someone feels they need to tell you a color doesn’t look good on you, or that you are ignorant about some topic. Conventional wisdom tells us not to read comments, but we also want to engage with friends and followers. Hurtful online comments are a common occurrence for teenagers. A recent Pew Internet survey found 59 percent of U.S. teens have experienced cyberbullying. It comes in the form of name-calling, spreading of false rumors and even physical threats.

Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, said in a blog post last week that the company wants to lead the industry in the fight against online bullying. One step is a new feature “that notifies people when their comment may be considered offensive before it’s posted.” Artificial intelligence finds comments that may be hurtful and asks the user, “Are you sure you want to post this?” The company has tested this feature and found that by encouraging people to reconsider their comment, that some people did undo their comment and share something less hurtful.

Instagram is also wanting more users to report bullying when they see it. A new feature called Restrict is coming soon that allows users to limit someone’s interactions without them knowing. Right now, when you block someone, the person isn’t notified, but they are no longer able to find your profile, posts or stories. So if they go searching for you, they’ll realize you have blocked them. Restrict will still allow the restricted person to comment on your posts, but it will only be visible to that person unless you approve the comment. “Restricted people also won’t know when you’re active on Instagram or when you’ve read their direct messages,” according to Mosseri’s blog post.

Instagram now asks users "Are you sure?" when trying to post a hurtful comment.
Instagram now asks users "Are you sure?" when trying to post a hurtful comment.

Last year, Facebook gave users more control to delete hurtful comments and the ability to report bullying behavior on someone else’s behalf. Snapchat encourages users to report any harassment and claims someone will review it quickly, usually within 24 hours.

Lifehacker opened my eyes to yet another vehicle for bullying that had never even entered my mind: Google Docs. Many kids are using Google Docs in school for group projects, since it’s so easy to create a document and invite their friends to join. But some kids are reportedly using it to avoid parental restrictions (and watchful eyes) since many moms and dads would never think of banning such an educational tool. I talked with my sixth grader and his friends to find out if bullying was really happening through Google Docs. In our case, my middle schooler does not have his own laptop, so most of his access to Google Docs is at school. He and his friends admitted that sometimes classmates will create a document to chat back and forth during class and that once in a while there is some mild name-calling taking place.

I would prefer no name-calling, but their story seemed tame compared to examples in a blog post from parental control app Bark. It talks of more than 60,000 cases of kids ganging up on other children in Google Docs writing hurtful things.

So should parents ban all modes of communication between kids, including Google Docs? No. This is just an updated, digital version of the days when kids could (and would) write mean things about other kids on notebook paper and pass it around class. Kids are going to find ways to communicate with one another and sometimes that communication will be hurtful. It’s up to us as parents to talk with and really listen to our kids.

Facebook partnered with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to create the Bullying Prevention Hub and is a great starting point for parents to discuss bullying with their kids.

If your child is on the receiving end of harassment, it recommends taking your child seriously, staying calm and making an action plan. If your child is the one bullying others, recommendations include being supportive, reinforcing your values and deciding on consequences. The hub also has information on what teens can do if their friend is being bullied, if they are being bullied or if they’ve been called a bully. It’s all great information and is well worth the read. After you read it, find an appropriate time and place to sit down with your child. Simply start the discussion about how to be a responsible digital citizen and how our words and online comments matter.