Should Instagram Get a Mute Button?

The photo-sharing site announced changes to curb online harassment, but some experts believe its solutions are not enough.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Dec 14, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Shari Sharpe is an editorial intern at TakePart.

Body shaming, girlfriend hating, and threats are just a few of the reasons celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato decided to do a social media detox in 2016. But it’s not only those in the limelight who become the target of digital name-calling. As a result, Twitter and Facebook have been making moves to curb online bullying, and now Instagram is stepping up its efforts to make the photo-sharing service a safer environment.

Last week the company announced three new features designed to shut down bullies: being able to turn off commenting on individual posts, removing followers from private accounts without needing to block them, and the addition of a “like” button for comments rather than just photographs.

The new features come on the heels of updates the platform made this fall, such as the keyword moderation tool that lets users ban words they find offensive from appearing on their posts. Kevin Systrom, the cofounder and CEO of Instagram, wrote on the company blog in September that the company plans to “keep building features that safeguard the community and maintain what makes Instagram a positive and creative place for everyone.”

Whether an individual has a public or private account, users need more control, Sameer Hinduja, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University and the cofounder of the Cyberbullying Research Center, told TakePart. Hinduja would like to see Instagram implement a mute button, similar to what Twitter has done. The alternative on Instagram is simply to unfollow someone, but “then their feelings are hurt,” Hinduja said. “If you could just mute them so that they don’t show up as you’re scrolling down in your feed, then I think that lends itself to being able to manage delicate friendships and relationships without unnecessarily hurting people’s feelings.”

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Data from Hack Harassment, an initiative started in 2015 to curb digital bullying, indicate the practice is widespread and underreported, despite real-life threats. According to the organization, “40 percent of Internet users say they have personally experienced online harassment,” while 29 percent said they had reason to “fear for their lives.” But “90 percent of tech professionals agree more tools to block or report content would have an effect at reducing online harassment.”

Those tools are especially needed for the protection of younger users. In his work at the Cyberbullying Research Center, Hinduja deals primarily with children, and he notices that they “will want to keep their account public so that it leads to perhaps more followers and interactions, likes and comments, and so forth.” Along with opening the door to bullying from strangers, the danger is also that “you unwillingly reveal your location, and you unwillingly reveal what school you go to based on your outfits or what you wear,” he said.

Although adolescents are more impressionable, they aren’t the only ones seeking a self-esteem boost. “As an adult, hopefully you’re more mature and you can deal with the haters or any negative comments in a healthier and more constructive fashion, but that’s not always the case,” Hinduja said.

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Instagram is unique in the social media world because of its focus on picture sharing. But the amount of harassment and bullying seen on the platform cannot be wholly attributed to its visual focus, Hinduja said.

“Targets are victimized in different ways depending on their sensitivities. Regardless of the platform, whether it is Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, if you know what it takes to get under the skin of somebody else, you can cause a lot of emotional and psychological harm,” he said.

Although the platform still lacks a mute button, Hinduja applauded Instagram’s efforts. “The fact that you can like individual comments now I think is going to help with making the environment a little bit kinder by promoting, again, more compliments,” he said.