Cyber helpline seeks to address online bullying, social media problems

Several weeks ago at a high school in Arizona, a Facebook page appeared with derogatory language targeting around 20 students.

Posts included pictures of the school, with “foul language” in the text underneath the photos, said Matt Soeth, a high school teacher in Tracy. Soeth, also a co-founder of the nonprofit #iCANHELP that seeks to eliminate negativity on social media, was contacted by the school for help in removing the page.

“In this case…when you go to the report page of the site there was nothing really registering the safety algorithm that something was wrong,” Soeth said.

Instead, Soeth reported the violation directly to Facebook employees and within 10 minutes, the offending site was removed. Soeth credits the prompt response to the organization’s relationship with Facebook.

Beginning this fall, Soeth will offer such help to all schools in California as part of a first-of-its-kind helpline to offer Internet safety resources based on models used in other countries. The program is run by Soeth and Anne Collier, president of San Jose-based Net Family News, which advises in youth-related technology developments.

The helpline will allow schools or districts to reach staff by phone, email or through the website when a cyber bullying, sexting or reputation-related incident occurs.

Soeth and Collier will leverage their relationships with technology companies to respond to negative content, essentially serving as a “trusted flagger,” explained Collier, who also serves on Facebook’s safety advisory board.

“We’re talking about a full spectrum of antisocial behavior,” Collier said. “Not all of it violates terms of service, and not all of it can be categorized as bullying…[But] if it violates terms we can help get it taken down.”

The helpline will be available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on school days during the 2015-16 school year. The plan is to ultimately spread the helpline throughout the United States, where it’s estimated more than 10 percent of high school students are electronically bullied, including through email, chat rooms, instant messaging, websites or texting.

The trend is no different in San Francisco. The 2014 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance report – published annually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – revealed that 12.4 percent of The City’s public school students were electronically bullied the prior year, the fifth highest out of the large urban school districts surveyed in the U.S.

While there’s no such helpline in place in The City, the San Francisco Unified School District for years has developed methods to tackle digital safety issues, including an annual digital citizenship day, and a safe school line that’s checked twice a day, five days a week, for schools to report unsafe Internet use via the phone or e-mail, said Kevin Gogin, director of safety and wellness for the SFUSD’s Student, Family and Community Support Department.

“It’s a constant education process for the adults in our district as well as for the children, because what’s happening with social media daily is happening faster than any of us can track,” Gogin said.

The district has no immediate plans to use the platform, but may explore its usefulness next school year when the pilot launches, according to district officials.

“Any way that we can expand knowledge base to protect our children and to teach them appropriate Internet use is something worth looking into,” Gogin said.

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