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Addressing cyberbullying: Offering support may help more than taking control

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AP Photo/Toby Talbot

(Read caption) John Halligan shows the Web page devoted to his son, Ryan, at his home in Underhill, Vt., Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007. Ryan Patrick Halligan, bullied by classmates for months online, killed himself in 2003.

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If what Ask.fm executives reportedly said about the hate messages on Hannah Smith’s page is true – and it’s very likely to be – those messages were even more symptomatic (and less causative) of her troubles than originally thought (see my earlier post).

The social media site is reported to have told investigators that “98%” of the hate messages she received came from her own IP address, meaning her own computer, The Times of London reported. In other words, if true, this was another example of digital self-harm.

‘Digital self-harm’

Danah Boyd, a social media researcher, first wrote about digital self-harm in 2010. Her blog post on the subject highlights how crucial it is to respond calmly not reflexively, and really listen to our kids, when harassment happens in social media.

The listening is vital for two reasons: getting to the bottom of what really happened (in the offline context and social circle as well as online) and helping the targeted child heal.

More on that in a moment, but first a little background: Ask.fm isn’t the first social media company to report this.

Formspring.me – now rebranded Spring.me but still an older, US-based version of Ask.fm with its anonymity and Q&A format – contacted Ms. Boyd back then because of its abuse-reporting team’s discovery that kids were posting abusive messages to themselves in that site. In a 2010 post, Boyd relates her own learning process in working through the evidence of this emotional self-harm with Formspring.

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