Instagram rolls out new features in an effort to combat cyberbullying

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If you’ve spent any great deal of time on the internet, you’re probably aware that harassment is a major problem. Unwanted contact, trolling, cyberbullying, and even threats of rape and death have become the unfortunate norm in some online circles, and few users are immune. According to data compiled by advocates at Guard Child, 65 percent of kids between the ages of eight and 14 have been involved in a cyber-bullying incident and most tend to occur on social media — a recent survey found that 22 percent of American adults have been bullied or threatened online or know someone who has experience such harassment. The impetus is on social networks, then, to stem the abuse where possible and one company is leading the charge: Instagram.

On Tuesday, Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo-sharing app for smartphones, introduced new features aimed at combatting cyberbullying and other forms of internet mistreatment. Three new tools — the ability to disable comments, the ability to “like” comments, and the ability to remove followers from private accounts — follow on the heels of a filter that lets users hide comments by keyword.

Arguably the most visible feature is the ability to ‘turn off’ commenting. By navigating to the Instagram app’s Advanced Settings menu and toggling the “Turn Off Commenting” button, Instagram users will be able to prevent followers from commenting on current and future photos.

“Comments are where the majority of conversation happens on Instagram,” Kevin Systrom, Instagram’s founder and chief executive, wrote in a blog post. “While comments are largely positive, they’re not always kind or welcome.”

The functionality, which was previously available to a small number of high-profile accounts, will be rolled out to everyone in the coming weeks.

It will land alongside the ability to “like” comments. Soon, Instagram users will be able to tap a heart icon to highlight comments they find particularly funny, poignant, or uplifting. Instagram describes it as  “promoting positivity,” and said that while the number of “likes” a comment receives won’t impact its visibility, the company might consider a ranking system in the future.

Lastly, private Instagram accounts now have another way to digitally block people they no longer wish to see: by ‘unfollowing’ them. Previously, public accounts — accounts that any user could follow — had to block users, which notified them of removal. Now, they can quietly unfollow users they would prefer not to see in their feed. “[There] was no simple way to undo that decision without blocking them,” Systrom wrote. “The person will not be notified that you removed them as a follower.”

Instagram reiterated it recently introduced tools allowing users to anonymously report people at risk for suicide or self-harm Systrom said the company’s staff would work “around the clock” to monitor reports of suicidal behavior.

The social network’s efforts come as incidents of cyberbullying climb. An Australian study by digital security firm Norton found that nearly half of 1,000 respondents had experienced some form of abuse or harassment online and almost one in four had received threats of physical violence. The impact can be dramatic: victims of bullying are at greater risk for health problems and over six times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious illness, smoke regularly, or develop a psychiatric disorder compared to those not involved in bullying.

Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have attempted to curb online harassment with new online tools in 2016. YouTube rolled out a feature that automatically flags potentially abusive comments. Twitter introduced a quality filter tool which uses artificial intelligence to detect and hide threats, abusive language, and offensive content from Twitter timelines, and mute features that allows users to block out specific words, phrases, hashtags, Twitter handles, and emojis. On Monday, a coalition of companies including Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft pledged to share a digital database to help stop the spread of terrorism propaganda.

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