Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Social media need social conscience

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CALGARY -- Looking at pictures of a smiling Rehtaeh Parsons is heartbreaking. The Halifax teenager took her own life after a photo that allegedly depicted her being sexually assaulted by a group of boys was shared, and quickly reached everyone she knew. Bullied harassment followed, followed by her death.

Imagine the level of shame the 17-year-old felt, while keeping in mind adolescents are basically linear thinkers in a non-linear world. Faced with a devastating assault on her character, and maybe an uninvited assault on the body and emotions as well, her life, to her, might have suddenly seemed to be irreparably damaged by the public nature of it all.

The subsequent and current media focus has revolved around the nature and context of bullying, shifting some toward the puzzling response of the policing agency responsible for investigating the assault, and the role of so-called social media.

Let's be clear. At its foundation, this circumstance is not fundamentally a media issue. Yes, we now have access to tools we can use to immediately and personally "publish" information we have, including photos, videos and gazillions of likes, pet peeves, social commentary and criticism, some of which is enlightening, but most is... well... not.

The fact we are able to do this doesn't force us to do so. From the invention of the printing press, radio, television and now the Internet, technological change has continuously pushed media into new ways to present information. Unquestionably, these changes have adjusted the way we use and understand information, which in turn encourages development of new ways to communicate, but in no way does this liberty to publish imply permission to mistreat others.

This applies to so-called social media as well. The technically derived option to share doesn't mean to we have to do so, but certainly means that, if we do, we need do so in ways that are generally acceptable to the community.

Could social media sites, and digital media companies generally, do a better job monitoring and training users, and especially children, in proper use?

The answer is, of course they could. In cases such as the tragic death of a precious young person could parents, police, educators and society generally do a better job? The answer is clearly yes.

I don't presume to have all or any answers for parents and police on the subject of bullying, except to suggest everything adolescents do, good and bad, is a reflection of the society that defines them. While bullies of all ages should be held accountable, we need to accept the fact that the way we live and the values we promote are part of the problem.

I do have more practical suggestions for social policy-makers and social media providers, including social engagement sites like Facebook, search engines, information aggregators and cellphone companies.

Policy-makers could easily expand the definition of child pornography to include the posting or sharing of any image of the person younger than 18 seemingly engaged in a sexual act of some kind. The legislated policing focus in this area has been rightly on trafficking in child porn and attempting to disrupt those networks.

This difficult and expensive work could also be one way to actively hold this type of bully accountable, and to warn kids that this is not a game.

The act of sharing and posting Rehtaeh's picture should have automatically triggered an investigation. Period.

Social media of all kinds could step up, too, and stop counting its billions in earnings for a few minutes and agree as an industry to require a warning to anyone posting or sharing any visual material along the lines of: "Before posting or attaching your images or video consider whether the material may be illegal, offensive, or may cause emotional, and physical harm to another person."

While they are at it, how about developing an application included on phones for free that provides some common-sense rules young people could access.

Call it the Rehtaeh app.

Terry Field is an associate professor in the bachelor of communication program at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2013 J6

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