Will Maryland AG’s project with Facebook teach him about social media?

Schools and parents may be interested to hear about a pilot program Facebook has put in place with Maryland’s Attorney General Douglas Gansler, because – if successful – it may roll out nationwide. The “Educator Escalation Channel” offers school staff dealing with cyberbullying (one point person per school system) a “direct channel” to Facebook staff that handles abuse reports, the AG’s office announced. The program was announced two days after a Maryland law making cyberbullying a misdemeanor went into effect last week.

“All educators are urged to first report questionable or prohibited content through [Facebook’s] standard reporting mechanism. If the issue is not resolved within 24 hours, educators should contact their school system’s designated point person to accelerate the report,” the press release says.

The big question is what General Gansler means by “resolved.” If Facebook deletes the account of a student engaging in bullying behavior, the behavior only stops on Facebook. That’s not even a “bandaid” for a targeted child, much less resolution. A determined aggressor, who is often hurting too, can use multiple channels. Just like all the positive socializing happening online and on phones, harassment and bullying can show up in texting services, apps, online games, and a myriad other Web sites – not just Facebook. In fact, more and more socializing among people of all ages is mobile, and Facebook’s mobile app is one of tens of thousands of social apps. The digital part of socializing’s really diversifying.

But there’s something even more problematic challenging General Gansler’s initiative: the assumption that cyberspace (apps, Web sites, etc.) is the context of cyberbullying. It’s not. Cyberspace is just the digital place where a “real life” relationship or social problem shows up. It’s a problem between people, so it’s expressed wherever they interact, including at school. If the problem between the people involved isn’t resolved in offline life, getting someone’s account taken down – in Facebook or a dozen other digital services – doesn’t resolve anything. A school administrator (and parents, of course) will still have to deal with the problem after Facebook has responded, through the reporting system available to everybody and the Educator Escalation Channel.

The attorney general’s press release says he has urged advertisers to stop supporting two other social media sites, one of which I wrote about here. We do need to understand better how or at what point digital services can be turned into weapons and contribute to a relational problem or self-destructive behavior. But continuing to treat them as either the main problem or the source of resolution shifts the focus away from finding real solutions.

That’s not to say this pilot program in Maryland is a wasted effort. It might be very educational. It may teach educators – and an attorney general’s office, if they pay attention – a lot about how students use social media, about how…

  • limited Facebook’s powers to resolve cyberbullying cases really are because its staff has basically zero context on what’s going on between people posting there
  • many more social media spaces there are for harassment and bullying to show up
  • in order to solve online aggression, everybody needs to understand that what happens online is much more about our humanity than our technology
  • the context of most interactions online and on phones is just life, which for young people means school life
  • projects like this – with one giant Web service or even all social media – can make schools’ jobs easier only marginally at best
  • important it is for children (and all of us) to learn social-emotional literacy, which goes to the heart of the problem, develops the skills to resolve it and has multiple other benefits for students and schools.

So Maryland is conducting a useful experiment, but not useful in the way General Gansler may be thinking right now.

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