Experts say Facebook has made strides in responding to reports of cyberbullying on the social networking site, but there is more to do.
The disturbing trend was back in the news last month when a Shirley woman alleged that bullying and taunts on Facebook preceded a schoolyard fight between her 12-year-old daughter and other seventh-grade girls. The woman was arrested for allegedly facilitating the fight and striking a girl.
Facebook isn't the only social networking site dealing with the issue. Formspring, which unlike Facebook allows anonymous comments, figured in the suicide last month of Jamey Rodemeyer, a Buffalo teen who was taunted over his sexual orientation.
But Facebook, the world's largest networking site with 800 million users, has within the last year assumed more of a leadership role, working with organizations like MTV and Time Warner on educational campaigns and putting in new measures to more quickly deal with reports of bullying.
Facebook gets 2 million reports a week from users notifying the site about bullying, annoying, false or inappropriate content.
Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said that compared with other social networking sites, "Facebook is doing better than most."
But, he added, "They certainly could be doing more . . . The biggest issue with Facebook is their size so they have a tough time keeping up with reports and can take a while to respond to violations of their terms of service. It seems like they are moving in the right direction."
Rosalind Wiseman, author of the book "Queen Bees and Wannabees" and a well-known speaker on bullying, said that within the past 18 months, Facebook "realized they need to take a leadership role on this."
Setting up safeguardsA number of new systems, both automated and human, are in place or in trials, including some "promising" ones that Patchin said could "expedite the removal of problematic content significantly."
One is a pilot program launched this summer that would give educators a "special channel" to quickly get Facebook's attention.
"We wanted to find a way to help teachers and school administrators report things that might disrupt learning or pose immediate safety risks (example -- video of a schoolyard fight uploaded to Facebook)," Nicky Jackson Colaco, who helps manage child safety issues for Facebook, wrote in an email.
The site recently put in place an automated system to examine reported impostor profiles, where someone has assumed another user's identity to create a Facebook account, and disable those that can't be verified. Disputed cases are resolved by a team of investigators, she said.
Another system issues a warning notice if a user's content is reported and deleted. The warning shows the content and a summary of the site's policies.
Users who repeatedly misuse Facebook's posts, chats, messaging or public pages can be suspended or, ultimately, removed from the site.
Colaco said the "vast majority" of bullying reports were reviewed within 24 hours, or at most, 72 hours. Offending photos were quickly taken down, she said, while text is reviewed "to make sure it violates our policy and that you are all right."
She added that for many teens, a simple warning stops the offending behavior and since records are kept of user accounts and public pages, "we have a pretty good idea of a person's behavior . . . If it becomes clear they have no intention of abiding by our terms of behavior, they're kicked off the site. They wouldn't be allowed back on."
'Just the tip of the iceberg'While Wiseman said that she hears fewer complaints about Facebook, she said she still hears many about school districts refusing to act if bullying between schoolmates takes place online.
In the case of the brawl in Shirley, Daphne Melin, 32, the mother of one of the girls in the fight, was arrested on charges of endangering the welfare of a child and attempted assault for allegedly kneeing a young spectator. She said the school district refused to get involved before the fight when she went for help with printouts of the online bullying and threats in hand, said her attorney, Michael Brown. Melin and Brown have defended her actions, saying she went to the fight to ensure it was fair and no weapons were used.
But Paul Casciano, superintendent of the William Floyd school district, says the allegation is "inaccurate and unfair."
He said, "We immediately intervened, met with both students, and did not hear of any further issues. We asked her to consider curtailing her daughter's Facebook time and/or monitoring it more closely."
Facebook policy requires that users be 13 or older.
Anne Collier, editor of Net Family News and co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a member of Facebook's safety advisory board, said focusing on cyberbullying doesn't address what goes on "at school, in the mall, on the phone. What happens on Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg . . . It's important to take time to get to the bottom of the story."
She added, "There's a lot of things you can do on Facebook but it doesn't solve the real life problem of that relationship."