Will Instagram's Anti-Bullying Feature Actually Work? We Asked Psychologists

It could save people’s lives, say the experts – or be a case of “click off and carry on”.

Instagram is rolling out a new anti-bullying feature which asks people: ‘Are you sure you want to post this?’ before they share an offensive comment.

If a person types a phrase such as “you are ugly” on the platform, they will also be given a link to “learn more”, where a notice will tell them: “We are asking people to rethink comments that seem similar to others that have been reported.”

Early tests have found the feature has been successful in encouraging some people to delete their comment or share something less hurtful, according to the company’s chief executive Adam Mosseri.

But one psychologist tells HuffPost UK that while it might work in the short-term – and could even save lives – in the long-term people will learn to ignore it.

Nadezhda Fedrunova via Getty Images / HuffPost UK

The feature is a response to increasing numbers of people being cyber-bullied through social media platforms. It’s a lot easier to bully online rather than in real life because of the lack of consequences, says counsellor and psychologist Philip Karahassan.

“The reason we don’t bully people in the street is because we feel there’s a consequence that is holding us back from doing that, which essentially is us being chastised or being held accountable for our actions,” he explains. “But if you think about this online, there is no barrier.”

Karahassan says people’s virtual identities become inflated and they get a kick and validation from posting offensive comments. “This is why you find people who troll do it from platform to platform, because that’s their way of being validated or rewarded,” he says.

Some people might get frustrated because they see others doing things they’re jealous of online, he says. “Rather than thinking: ‘I don’t have this, let’s build on it’; they go: ‘I’m going to show that person they’re a horrible person for achieving what they’ve achieved’.

“It’s as if they feel it’s a personal attack on them.”

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Karahassan, who runs the Therapy In London practice, says the new tool is similar to a “two to three second timeout” strategy he uses in therapy, where people pause for a few seconds to take notice of their emotional state. “When we’re enraged, when we’re angry, we feel it’s fight or flight,” he says. “We feel we have to offload whatever we want to say.”

The timeout period helps us reassess that feeling, giving people a short break to weigh up what’s going on. But, he says, the problem with the Instagram tool is that people will get used to it. “Your brain just automatically finds a new way of relating to that pop-up,” says Karahassan. “So it’ll just go: ‘this is going to happen.’ We’re not reading it, there’s no emotional or cognitive reaction to it, other than: ‘how do I get rid of it as quickly as possible?’”

In the short-term, Karahassan says he can see the new Instagram feature working – “maybe it’ll save a couple of people’s lives”. However, in the long-term he says people will “click off it and carry on”.

“It’s nice to see Instagram is trying something like this that’s built into the actual platform.”

- Dr Sarah Hodge, cyber psychologist

Both he and Dr Sarah Hodge, a cyber psychologist from Bournemouth University, applaud the feature and Instagram’s commitment to making change. “It’s nice to see they’re trying something like this that’s built into the actual platform,” says Dr Hodge.

“In some instances that might be really useful for people as some people post quite impulsively, so it could potentially help. But it’s hard to say because sometimes people might ignore that message.”

Dr Hodge also believes the tool won’t necessarily work for everyone. “If a person is a troll and they self-identify as a troll, and they are there to cause harm, that notification is telling them they’re doing it right,” she says.

But maybe Instagram can use the feature to identify trolls, she adds, and potentially remove them or find new ways to address their behaviour.