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Bullying and hate speech: Q&A with Alex Holmes

4 minutes read

- Written by Yubo Team

Alex Holmes is Deputy CEO of the Diana Award and a member of the Yubo Safety Board. Having experienced bullying as a child, he founded a peer-to-peer support programme called Anti-Bullying Ambassadors, which has trained more than 50,000 students in over 5,000 schools in the UK and Ireland. Alex sits on the global safety advisory boards of several social media companies and is an advisor to the UK Government.

Bullying and hate speech: Q&A with Alex Holmes

At this time of year, there is a huge global focus on the prevention of bullying. National Bullying Prevention Month took place in the USA in October, UNESCO held its International Day against Violence and Bullying at School Including Cyberbullying on 2 November and the Anti-Bullying Alliance coordinated Anti-Bullying Week in the UK (13-17 November) with the theme of ‘make a noise about bullying’.

Bullying can take place in real life (e.g. at home or at school) and online (e.g. on social media or messaging apps). It can also take different forms, including physical bullying (e.g. shoving or hitting someone), emotional bullying (e.g. spreading lies or excluding someone from a friendship group), verbal bullying (e.g. calling someone nasty names or making threats) and prejudicial bullying (e.g. targeting someone because of their race, religion or sexual orientation).

Yubo works hard to protect its users from online bullying so, to mark Anti-Bullying Week UK (#AntiBullyingWeek), we’re publishing this interview with UK-based anti-bullying expert Alex Holmes who sits on the Yubo Safety Board. This is the second in our series of articles about the current state of online safety (you can read the first article here).

Thanks for your time, Alex, Could you start by telling us a little about the extent of bullying amongst young people – in particular, online bullying?

We know from research by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and other organisations that face-to-face bullying is more common than online bullying. 

For example, the latest study by the Anti-Bullying Alliance shows that almost one in four children in the UK (23%) are bullied frequently in person compared to one in 20 children (5%) who are bullied frequently online. According to a survey by the Office for National Statistics (UK), being called names, sworn at or insulted and receiving nasty messages are the most common online bullying behaviours.  

Our own research at the Diana Award last September revealed that 65% of children in the UK were scared of going back to school because they have been bullied. 

These kinds of numbers are alarming so our organisation works with young people, parents and teachers to change the attitudes, behaviour and culture of bullying. Because online bullying often starts with bullying at school (and children spend 11,000 hours of their life in school), we always look at the big picture.

How does the Diana Award help young people to deal with online bullying and hate speech?

Young people might see racist, misogynist or other negative comments on social media and not have the skills to handle the situation or know how to report it. This is a real challenge, especially if the person who made the post has clout within their peer group. And even if a social media provider bans someone for hate speech, the community members may still share their content. 

Our Anti-Bullying Ambassadors programme at the Diana Award helps to tackle bullying behaviour in school and our Respect project helps students to understand what racist and sexual bullying behaviour is and to design in-school campaigns to combat it. 

Do you have any tips for young people who experience negativity, hate or bullying?

  1. Don't join in or add negativity: Don't like, comment or add to the drama. Don't fuel the fire or fan the flames!
  2. Offer your support or a kind word: If you feel OK and brave, challenge the negativity by adding some positive words or calling it out.
  3. Reach out to the person on the receiving end – your support could mean the world to them.
  4. Use the report button: Reporting is supporting! Don't forget to help make the platform a safer and happier place by reporting any harmful behavior.
  5. Take a break: Being online can be tough. Take 10 minutes, go for a walk, speak to a friend or relative about what went down.

For specific tips about dealing with racist bullying, this article I did with the BBC might be helpful, and, if you’re a young person in the UK who needs support, please contact the Diana Award Advice Messenger (text DA to 85258).

What has had the greatest impact on online bullying and hate speech in recent years?

Although the COVID-19 lockdown provided an escape from the playground drama, online bullying still took place. As screen time (for e.g. schoolwork and gaming) and the frequency of online contact (for e.g. messaging and video chats) went up, digital boundaries became blurred and young people took more risks, which resulted in an increase in online messages (some of which were negative) at all times of the day and night. 

As the UK’s Chief Medical Officers say, it’s wise to take a precautionary approach to the amount of time young people spend on their digital devices – they should balance screen use with other (offline) activities.

We’ve also seen online hate increase around large events (e.g. the racist abuse during the Euro 2020 football tournament) and social media influencers playing a larger role, whether it’s encouraging young people to take part in pranks or share controversial views. 

One of the benefits of Yubo is that it’s about finding your tribe (meeting new people and socialising – either one to one or in a group) rather than following influencers or getting likes and shares.  

How can social media providers support their younger users?

It’s important to remember that the positives of technology outweigh the negatives but there are lots of things that social media providers can do to educate and protect young people. These include:

  • Market trust and safety to your users in the same way you market other product innovations to them (young people want to use safe platforms!).
  • Get the balance right between protecting your users and making them feel “censored”. I’m a big fan of using the onboarding process to explain the rules and then using frictionless ways to remind users about acceptable behavior (e.g. stating the rules at the beginning of a live stream, which is what Yubo does). 
  • Understand that young people will make errors of judgment (e.g. posting negative comments based on someone’s appearance) and help them to learn from them. In-app ‘nudges’ like the ones on Yubo remind users to behave more responsibly and also send an important message to the rest of the community.
  • Consider the language you use (e.g. instead of saying ‘Make a report’, which sounds very formal, you could offer an ‘I don’t like this content’ option and then prompt users to explain why and report it).
  • Don’t take a blanket Artificial Intelligence (AI) approach to content moderation – human beings should still make decisions.

Legislation, such as the UK’s Online Safety Act, will make social media companies legally responsible for keeping young people safe online.

How can young people help to influence online safety?

At the Diana Award, we encourage young people to look around their school and community and think about ways they can educate themselves, their peers, their parents, their teachers and other adults and help to reduce bullying and other online risks.

Young people live and breathe technology so they also need a seat at the table and a stronger voice in the discussion. That could be as members of trust and safety councils or advisory boards or as participants in hackathons. It’s already happening on a small scale but industry needs to extend the invitation more meaningfully. I’m working with Yubo to increase youth participation.

What is the role of the Yubo Safety Board?

As a board, we’re able to challenge Yubo and provide advice and support. We all have different expertise in the digital space so we can provide new ways of thinking about products and policies. It’s great to see that, in some of Yubo’s new safety tools and the language used in the app, our input has been valuable. 

7 ways Yubo helps to combat bullying and hate speech

1. Community Guidelines – Yubo has a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, intimidating, threatening or harassing another user.

2. Content moderation – Yubo’s Safety Specialists monitor activity on the platform 24/7 and take appropriate action when users report bullying or if they detect bullying through textual and audio-moderation technologies. 

3. Age verification – developed in collaboration with Yoti, this feature confirms the age and identity of Yubo users and helps to reduce fake profiles.

4. Muted Words – Yubo users can block any word, abbreviation or emoji that they find offensive, harmful and triggering to them.

5. Real-time interventions – if a user breaks Yubo’s Community Guidelines, they receive a pop-up alert explaining how they have crossed the line, how to change their behaviour and what action will be taken if they don’t comply. 

6. Reporting tool – Yubo encourages all users to report any inappropriate content or behaviour. In the first half of 2023, 24% of user reports to Yubo were about bullying and 12% were about discrimination and hate speech.

7. In-app campaigns – Yubo has teamed up with the Diana Award to run anti-bullying campaigns in the app.

Visit the Yubo Safety Hub and read the latest Transparency Report.


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