Artificial intelligence / November 15, 2023

AI: the evolution of cyberbullying

Amanda Lee

Amanda Lee

Senior Program Manager, Tech for Good & TELUS Wise

Teenager looking at smartphone.

According to a Statistics Canada survey of 13,000 Canadian youth aged 12 to 17, one in four has been cyberbullied, and it’s taking a serious toll on their mental health. In today’s age of generative AI, cyberbullying and its potential for harm is significantly exacerbated.

What can you do to educate the kids in your life, help them understand the risks of AI cyberbullying and teach them how to use this emerging technology safely and responsibly?

What is generative AI?

Generative AI technology uses algorithms to create images, video, music or text. The technology “learns” from vast data stores and then applies this learning to create something new that reflects what it knows.

ChatGPT, a natural language processing AI program created by OpenAI, is a great example. A user can prompt the application with a question like, “tell me about the history of TELUS Wise.” The application will then deliver an answer that seems like it was written by a person.

While generative AI opens up many new avenues for creativity, it also offers people new ways to act out online with greater scope, speed and anonymity.

Cyberbullying amplified

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, “generative AI allows for both the automatic creation of harassing or threatening messages, emails, posts or comments on a wide variety of platforms and interfaces, and its rapid dissemination.” Some examples include:

  • Catfishing: the process of luring someone into a relationship by using someone else’s information and images to create a fictional persona or fake identity.
  • Deepfake: a digitally manipulated video or audio file produced by AI, which typically features a person’s likeness and voice in a situation that did not actually occur.
  • Dogpiling: a flurry of critical or negative comments about someone or something by a large number of people.

Prior to AI, individuals bullying others would have to take the time to craft posts and messages, with the risk of being identified and held accountable for their actions. That’s not necessarily the case now. The automation inherent in AI has changed the game on the scope, severity and speed by which cyberbullying can proliferate and cause harm.

Even more daunting is the “learning” aspect of generative AI, and how it can intensify online abuse. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, generative AI, “can analyze a target’s social media posts, online activities or personal information to generate highly specific and threatening messages or content. It can create output that references specific locations, recent events or private details about the target’s life, making the harassment much more personal and intimidating.” And this can all be done in a matter of minutes.

While generative AI can intensify cyberbullying, the technology can also be used to combat it. Here are three ways AI is being used in the fight against cyberbullying:

  • Algorithms can detect unnatural behaviour patterns online including frequency of content posting and whether certain sentiments are repeated.
  • Targeted properly, AI can detect the perpetrators, victims and participants and provide accurate information to parents or teachers to intervene.
  • Understanding how mean messages or deepfakes originated can help parents and teachers support kids in dealing with bullying and educate them on how to avoid harm in the future.

Conversations with kids

Patricia Thane, CEO of Private AI, wrote a great article in Forbes about generative AI and child safety, with a particular focus on cyberbullying. In her view, we have a “collective responsibility to guide the hand that holds the smartphone,” so kids use technologies like generative AI safely and ethically.

What can you do to help the kids in your life enjoy the creativity and possibility of generative AI while mitigating the risks?

  • Learn with kids: the best way to show kids how easy it is to use generative AI is to let them experiment positively. Sit down with them and create images, text and videos using the technology. Gauge their reactions and then ask “what if” questions pertaining to cyberbullying, so they understand the power they have in their hands.
  • Protect your data: it’s never been more important to be vigilant about what you and your kids are posting and sharing online. Every post, comment, picture and video could be a potential learning input for someone who wants to use generative AI negatively.
  • Talk openly and honestly: Ask the kids in your life about what they know about generative AI and cyberbullying. Are other kids talking about it? Have they seen it? Has anyone been affected? Are they talking about it in school? Keeping the lines of communication open can help kids identify when AI cyberbullying happens and make them feel comfortable sharing if they see or experience it.

At TELUS, we recognize that understanding AI has become a vital part of digital literacy. That’s why we have launched our TELUS Wise responsible AI workshop for youth in partnership with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR). The online workshop is offered free of charge in English and French and covers responsible AI use, AI ethics and critical thinking skills. It’s all of our jobs to support youth in using this emerging technology safely and responsibly.

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