NEW YORK — Earlier this year, Instagram head Adam Mosseri declared that the social network wants to “lead the fight against online bullying.”
On Wednesday, the social media platform announced a new effort in that daunting task: it’s rolling out globally a feature called “Restrict,” a tool it’s been testing since July.
When you “Restrict” another user, comments on your posts from that person are only visible to them, and not to other people. Restricted users also won’t be able to see if you’re active on Instagram at any given moment or if you’ve read their direct messages.
Users can also opt to make a restricted person’s comments show up for others by approving their comments.
“The fact that Instagram is doing something is better than nothing,” said Randi Priluck, a professor and associate dean at Pace University focused on social media and mobile marketing. “But the question is: How much will this help?”
Fifty-nine percent of US teens have been bullied or harassed online, according to a 2018 study from Pew. Another study conducted by a non-profit anti-bullying group found that 42% of cyberbullying victims between the ages of 12 and 20 said they were bullied on Instagram.
Instagram’s reasoning for developing Restrict is that young Instagram users may be wary of blocking, unfollowing or reporting a bully because it could make the situation worse. Blocking or unfollowing the person could also make it harder to keep tabs on the bully’s behavior.
If Restrict works as intended, it could offer a way for users to protect themselves without notifying the person who is bullying them.
Dr. Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a professor at Florida Atlantic University, said the feature is a step in the right direction, but there are a number of factors that will determine its effectiveness.
“We need to see how it plays out at scale, and whether a critical mass of Instagrammers employ the feature,” he said.
Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor at Syracuse University and social media expert, said Instagram should ensure that features such as Restrict don’t end up being harmful to users or having unintended consequences such as escalating bullying situations further. Grygiel also encourages Instagram to share what their test results with Restrict showed, such as whether it reduced bullying.
This summer, the company also began rolling out a new tool that uses artificial intelligence to tell users when a comment could be considered offensive before it’s posted.
Priluck praised that particular feature. “People say stuff without thinking about what they’re saying. This is especially true of teenagers,” she said. “The filter can help them realize that what they’re saying may not be appropriate.”
At an event with reporters in May, Instagram said it’s working to better define what bullying on the platform looks like in all its forms. It’s met with teens and parents to learn more.
In general, Instagram and its parent company Facebook have been experimenting with ways to make the social networks less toxic. One such effort is its recent tests to hide likes on Instagram and Facebook in order to reduce pressure and comparisons to other people.