The U.S. has many fine, well-established hotlines and helplines designed to help with specific social problems (dating abuse, depression, domestic violence, etc.) or support vulnerable populations (such as LGBTQ youth). This helpline is about the online expression of those social problems and types of victimization: usually called “abusive content,” the kind of content that typically violates social media apps’ and services’ Terms of Service. The most common kind young people face is harassment or cyberbullying.
One way to think of the difference is, traditional helplines help with what’s happening (or being experienced) offline; Internet helplines like ours help with what’s going on online. If people call us about offline issues, we refer them to the specialized help their seeking at traditional helplines (here, in our Resources section, is a list of the U.S.’s top hotlines and helplines for all kinds of offline issues).
What schools report
Having said that, it’s important to add that research shows that there’s a great deal of overlap between what we see in social media and what’s happening in everyday life. True for everybody, it’s especially true for young people. The problems schools report to iCanHelpline are typically relational problems in the school community that are expressed online in the form of texts, tweets, comments, images and videos. Sometimes they’re expressed verbally or physically on campus during school hours; sometimes they’re expressed online on campus; and sometimes they’re expressed online off campus after school hours. (The days of relational issues having clear lines between on campus and off campus or between online and offline are over.)
Although many adults, including school and district personnel, struggle with the distinction between the relational issue itself and the visible expression of it online, the latter is what an Internet, or social media, helpline is designed to help with. And we can be of considerable help because of the inflammatory nature of the content. This content – which can range from being mean to extremely embarrassing to demoralizing or even criminal – can lead to emotional harm, physical fights, threats of violence, lawsuits and worse. A social media helpline can’t resolve the relational issues but it can help get the visible evidence of it deleted so that school staff and students seeking relief from the drama or harm can help restore calm and safety so that relational issues can be better resolved.
‘The real-time, real-life reality TV show’
As one educator put it, “Once the content is down, there’s nothing to copy, paste and share, fight over or gossip about. The real-time, real-life reality TV show’s over.” Defusing and disarming gets everybody closer to restorative solutions. Which means people can focus more on teaching, learning and constructive interaction. This can have tremendous positive impact on school climate and culture.
iCanHelpline is one of only a few Internet-native help services in the U.S. and the only one specifically serving youth (through their schools). It’s one of many youth-serving Internet helplines in Europe, Australia and New Zealand (more on that here). Ours is modeled after the UK’s Professionals Online Safety Helpline because we serve school personnel. Along with all Internet helplines around the world, iCanHelpline is part of the new middle layer of help demanded by today’s very social, user-driven media environment – middle in the sense that we help in two directions. We provide help and perspective to users and much-needed context to social media user support teams, making abuse reports actionable. Because, as parents, teachers and school administrators know, it’s very hard to understand young people’s online interactions (even offline ones) without any context, and it’s even harder for people far away who neither know the young people nor their school context. So we help both sides help students better.