I never wanted to become an expert in social media safety. It was never part of my life plan. But years of being on the receiving end of abuse on the internet, and a body of work inspired by a desire to fight back against it, have propelled me into the unexpected position of being, if not an expert, then certainly well-versed in the language of online safety. Lucky me.
As it turns out, however, even cyber abuse has its silver lining. I suppose I should thank my trolls for my recent trip to Singapore. Last week, I sat in Facebook's Singapore office, listening to the region's experts in online safety. It was a fascinating day, bringing together invited guests from all around the Asia-Pacific region. It revealed both the scope of the problem, and the variety of solutions currently being trialled to combat it.
Online abuse is often minimised. It's seen as separate from other forms of abuse (although it is often part of a pattern of abusive behaviour) and "not as bad". As it is a relatively new phenomena, it can be difficult for older people particularly to understand the impact it has. For young people, however, it has the potential to be extremely dangerous.
While it is too simplistic to directly blame our rising youth suicide statistics on the emergence of social media, there is no doubt that cyber bullying can have a detrimental effect upon mental health. Bullying used to be confined to school hours, but now it can take place 24/7. A determined, motivated and tech-savvy bully can quickly become a nightmare.
On the flipside, young people report that the place where they feel safest is the internet. The place where they feel least safe? At school. That was just one of the sobering facts that I learnt last week, but on the surface at least, it makes some sense. While social media can be weaponised to inflict pain and suffering, it can also provide a sense of connection and community, particularly for marginalised teens.
While I sat listening to the discussions about online safety, I found myself more inspired by the potential of social media to be used for good rather than depressed by the horrors it can create. As with many pieces of technology, whether a tool is deployed constructively or destructively is up to users. Whether users will choose to use social media positively is up to the systems and societal structures put in place around them.
I'm sick of the internet being written off as the wild west of human depravity. I'm fed up with the widespread acceptance that nastiness will flourish on social media. Social media has become the hell hole it sometimes is because we have allowed it to. Through lax laws, toothless enforcement processes, apathy and a reluctance to step in when things go wrong, we've allowed bullies to run amok, and we're reaping what we've sown.
As a society, we're collectively responsible for the tone in online spaces, and we share that responsibility with governments and social media companies. We have more power than we think to change social media for the better. We can aspire to make it a hub for creativity, human connection and progress, or we can allow it to become an exhibition ground for the worst human impulses.
Here's an example of how we can all work together to bring about change. Over the past few years, after considerable community discussion about the need to help struggling users, Facebook has been consulting with experts to determine how it can help to keep distressed users safe. It now allows friends to report a Live broadcast in which a Facebook user is clearly distressed, an action that won't result in cutting off the Facebook Live broadcast (a move that may push an already distraught person closer to the edge) but will instead present the upset user with a number of options for accessing help.
Another example of using social media for good can be seen in the Facebook group Dragon Mamas, a US-based group that provides support for parents of LGBTQ+ youth. Along with the many other online support groups that provide lifelines, friendship and a sense of solidarity to countless people.
While the discussion around systemic change to address online abuse behaviour is a vital one, and our legislative framework (the disastrously flawed Harmful Digital Communications Act) is in desperate need of an overhaul, we have the opportunity to take control on a personal level too.
The next time you see nastiness on social media, speak out and ask the perpetrator why they're behaving in such a way. The next time you see someone post something that makes you worry about their wellbeing, reach out and ask if they're okay.
Kindness doesn't just begin in the home. It begins in our newsfeeds, inboxes, comments and threads. We can be the change we want to see in the world wide web.