Facebook and the Rise of Anti-Social Networking

Are social networking sites such as Facebook really to blame for recent upsurges in “cyber-bullying” and “cyber-stalking”?

I am unashamed to admit that I am an example of the archetypal Facebook-user. I check my account each day, “lol” along with the best of them, and yes, I feel a little bit smug when someone “adds” me as their friend. For the mighty Facebook user there is no greater feeling than seeing that friend count rise. It is the site we turn to during the good times, where that hilarious night in Klute is immortalised in photographic form and it is dependable old Facebook that never fails to consume our time in the darkest depths of deadline procrastination. Facebook is undeniably everywhere.

Whilst we cannot discern the number of people who use Facebook, there are approximately 500 million accounts active worldwide, a quarter of which were created in the US. According to a survey undertaken by Travelodge, the last thing that 70% of adults do before going to sleep is check their Facebook account for notifications. A further 18% of the adults that took part in the survey also “Twitter” before they hit the hay, and a quarter of people use their mobile phones to access social networking sites during the day. With such vast access to the international public, it is no wonder that there has been cause for concern about the degree to which social networking sites have infiltrated our lives.

Indeed, it is no secret that Mark Zuckerberg, the world’s youngest self-made billionaire and founder of Facebook, has been condemned for violating privacy rules. During his time at Harvard he hacked into the university’s computers, downloaded images of female students, and invited fellow classmates to rate how attractive they were. Whilst Zuckerberg narrowly avoided expulsion, his then current endeavour, “Facemash”, arguably the mother of Facebook was shut down by university officials. Facebook arrived three months later, and the rest is history.

A virtual representation of the distribution of Facebook users worldwide.

As the company has expanded, it has received further criticism over issues with data privacy. In 2007, Facebook changed its privacy terms to gain permanent legal ownership of photographs, videos and text uploaded by users, a feat which failed after a federal complaint in the US. Further to this, with such a sought after user-base, Facebook was involved in transmitting information concerning millions of users to outside companies. This data has allegedly been sold on to advertisers since.

But in light of National Anti-Bullying week, which took place at the end of last month, and its central campaign to legislate against cyber bullying, there is something more sinister at work in the social networking world. Just as socialising with our friends has been made infinitely easier through the medium of social networking sites, anti-social behaviour has evolved in turn. Whilst the government claims that existing legislation against stalking and harassment is sufficient to protect victims of online abuse, controversial charity BeatBullying maintains that social networking sites such as Facebook have generated a new kind of deviant behaviour between users that should be treated as a specific criminal offence. Supporters of this petition for new legislation include Archbishop Desmond Tutu amongst other key figures from the private and charity sectors and more than 100 Parliamentarians. How desperate the need is for a new law, however, is subject to some debate.

A study of 15,000 children undertaken by the National Centre for Social Research found that half of all 14-year-olds are the victims of bullying, and a similar survey undertaken by the BBC indicates that this number is more like 47%. Both surveys highlight the fact that “cyber-bullying” is now one of the most common forms of abuse. Interestingly, the National Centre’s victimisation survey also shows that girls are more likely to be victims than boys, and that girls are also more likely to come forward to a parent or teacher. Indeed, the number of women who have experienced “cyber-stalking” and identity fraud has similarly risen as the number of social networkers has risen. The Department of Education, however, has decided to work within the existing legal framework, whereas protestors for reform argue that the perpetrator of online anti-social behaviour will continue long after school ends, and this can lead to other serious criminal acts.

Faceless Facebook? Online stalkers are difficult to identify.

Paul Bocij, who has written a book entitled Harassment in the Internet Age and how to Protect your Family, argues that “cyber-stalking” is an entirely new breed of bullying in that it is not simply an extension of what occurs in the playground or in real life. Cyber bullying, he argues, is dangerous in that the identity of the perpetrator can remain undetected, and many stalkers or bullies operate exclusively online. If no off-line bullying occurs, Bocij questions, how can existing legislation protect victims of such an advanced and contemporary criminal act?

Online-sociologist Danah Boyd suggests simply that the problem with “cyber-bullying” is not the “cyber” aspect; it is the “anti-social” aspect, or the “bullying” that remains at the heart of the issue. The answer, or indeed the reason, for this behaviour is not to do with advancements in technology, “technology is not radically changing what’s happening; it’s simply making what is happening far more visible.” Whilst the media are content to blame social networking sites for rises in harassment and bullying, Boyd most accurately concludes that deviant “behaviour reflects the people on the websites rather than anything inherent in the site itself.”

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