I recently had the privilege to speak on the keynote gaming panel of the 16th Annual International Bullying Prevention Conference, an event themed Kindness & Compassion: Building Healthy Communities.

The International Bullying Prevention Association is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization founded in 2003 when grassroots practitioners and researchers came together to convene the first conference in the US entirely focused on bullying prevention. They host an annual conference in Chicago where attendees can benefit from workshops, poster sessions and TED-inspired sessions which deliver hands-on solutions and theoretical, research-based presentations. 

Below, I focus on the sessions and discussions I participated in regarding cyberbullying, and present a brief account of the takeaways I brought back to Canada and Two Hat.

1. User-centric approaches to online safety

A few people on the tech panels referred to the concept of “user-centric safety” — letting users set their boundaries and comfort levels for online interactions. Catherine Teitelbaum, a renowned Global Trust & Safety Executive who heads up Trust & Safety for Twitch, is a big champion of the idea and spoke about how the concept of “safety” varies from person to person. Offering customized control for the user experience, like Twitch does with Automod by empowering channel owners to set their chat filtering standards, is the way of the future. 

Online communities are diverse and unique, and often platforms contain many communities with different norms. The ability to tailor chat settings to those unique characteristics is critical.

Wouldn’t it be great for users to be able to choose their safety settings and what they are comfortable with – the same way they can set their privacy settings on online platforms? What if a mother wants to enjoy an online platform with her child, but wants to ensure that they don’t see any sexual language? Perhaps a gamer just wants to relax and play a few rounds without experiencing the violent language that might be the norm in a mature game centered around combat. The more agency and flexibility we give to users and players online, the better we can cater to the different expectations we all have when we log in.

2. Shared Responsibility, and the Importance of Diverse Voices

The concept of sharing and contributing to the greater good of online safety practices across tech industries also came up. Here at Two Hat we believe that ushering in a new age of content moderation and empowering an Internet that will fulfill its true purpose of connecting human beings is only possible through a shared responsibility approach (which also came up in the conference). We believe it will take the efforts of everyone involved to truly change things for the better. This includes academia, industry, government, and users. 

In his 2018 book “Farsighted: How Do We Make The Decisions That Matter The Most”, Steven Johnson writes about how complex decisions require a comprehensive mapping of all factors involved and how those are informed and extremely benefited from a set of diverse perspectives. The best, farsighted decisions compile the voices of a variety of people. The intricate human interaction systems we are creating on the Internet require complex decision-making at both the inception and design stage. However, right now those decisions are rarely informed by multi-disciplinary lenses. No wonder we are so shortsighted when it comes to anticipating issues with online behaviour and online harms.

A true, collaborative community of practice is needed. We need that rising tide that floats all boats, as my good friend Dr. Kim Voll says.

3. Empathy as an Antidote

Another good friend, Dr. Sameer Hinduja was one of the speakers in the conference. Dr Hinduja is a Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University and Co-Director of the Cyberbullying Research Center who is recognized internationally for his groundbreaking work on the subjects of cyberbullying and safe social media use. You will be hard-pressed to find someone more dedicated to the well-being of others.

He talked about how empathy can be used to prevent bullying, pulling from research and practical applications that have resulted in improvement in peer to peer relationships. He stressed the importance of practices that lead youth to go beyond the traditional approach of “being in someone else’s shoes” to feel empathy, and reaching a point where they truly value others. This is so important, and it makes me wonder: How can we design human interaction systems online where we perceive each other as valuable individuals and are constantly reminded of our shared humanity? How do we create platforms that discourage solely transactional interaction? How do we bring offline social cues into the online experience? How can we design interaction proxies to reduce friction between users – and ultimately lead us to more positive and productive online spaces? I don’t have all the answers – no one does. But I am encouraged by the work of people like Dr Hinduja, the Trust and Safety team at Twitch, the incredible Digital Civility efforts of Roblox and my friend Laura Higgins, their Director of Community Safety & Digital Civility, and events like The International Bullying Prevention Conference.

Moving Forward

Cyberbullying is one of the many challenges facing online platforms today. Let’s remember that it’s not just cyberbullying – there is a wider umbrella of behaviors that we need to better understand and define, including harassment, reputation tarnishing, doxxing, and more. We need to find a way to facilitate better digital interactions in general, by virtue of how we design online spaces, how we encourage positive and productive exchanges, and understanding that it will take a wider perspective, informed by many lenses, in order to create online spaces that fulfill their true potential.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely in the industry, and you’re definitely a participant in online communities. So what can you do, today, to make a difference? How can industry better collaborate to advance online safety practices?

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