The cyber world is a relatively new invention which connects man across the world in ways that we never deemed possible. It has spread empathy, sharing, and incredible understanding through its platform. Unfortunately, bullying which has existed since the rise of man, coupled with cyberspace, empowers bullying to be scaled and deeply affective. I’d like to dive into the nuances of cyber bullying – how social media serves as a mask for bullies by creating alternative or false personas to hind behind, how the rise of social media has an equal correlation to the rise of cyberbullying, and how with handfuls of viral social media platforms existing today, how each medium has an idiosyncratic way to bully. I will then dive into how social media companies attempt to fight different cyberbullying cases by providing reporting or blocking functions on bullying. I will conclude with my personal recommendation.
In Florida, Tovonna Holton, a 15-year-old girl, committed suicide with her mother’s gun after a nude video of her in the shower was posted to Snapchat. Unfortunately, stories like Tovonna’s are becoming commonplace with social media as the enabler. Ever since the boom of technology, a new relationship between technology and bullying has formed where bullies are protected by alien accounts or this feeling of invincibility because they are sheltered from watching the reaction of those bullied. Before the internet boom, there was no mask for bullies to hide behind. They had to watch every reaction with their own eyes when they shattered someone’s soul. They had to welcome the association of being a bully. Cyberspace protects cyberbullies from the instant pain caused.
Tovonna’s story is not an one-off event but an example reflective of an epidemic. According to Digital Trends, “ half of teens and young adults between ages 12 and 20 have been bullied and 17 percent experience bullying online”. One in almost five people have been cyberbullied. Unfortunately, this number is only increasing as platforms and their functions increase in the cyber world. The consequences are also brutal. According to Ditch the Label, 4000 deaths a year are caused by cyberbullying.
Bullies from the beginning of time have found vapid attributes to attack, and these platforms arm them; the more platforms exist, the more people are affected simply because people are different and now their identities are exposed at scale. The chart below reflects the attribute breakdown that bullies focus on:
(Image:Infengy. Titled: Attributes focused on by cyber bullies)
The mediums to target these attributes include bullies posting negative comments on social media accounts to revenge their peers, posting abusive posts on someone’s wall to torment them, or using pictures to deeply mock someone. The forms of mediums to post are endless: visuals, audio, recordings, words. And the formalization of grouping people by interest, gender, religion, disability, hobbies, opinions, etc formalize how bullies can penetrate at scale. The worst part – once these media are posted, they are almost impossible to truly erase. According to Ditch the Label, there are even some cyberbullies who will go as far as stalking and/or hacking an account in order to make posts as though they were someone else. One’s image can be tainted forever.
According to Digital Trends, Instagram has the highest rate of cyberbullying with 42 percent of its user base falling victim to cyberbullying. With photos as the social platform’s main medium of sharing, it is no surprise that bullies on Instagram leverage the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” for the worse. In fact, according to Nobullying.com, 11 percent of adolescents and teens report that embarrassing or damaging photographs have been taken of them without their knowledge or consent. Bullies not only post harmful pictures that can be deeply misconstrued to bolster their vulgarity but bullies can also comment horrifying comments like, “why did you need edits – too ugly or something?”
Facebook unfortunately does not fall short of Instagram with 37 percent of its user base also claiming they have been victimized by cyberbullying. Facebook, due to its popularity, has become one of the main hubs for cyberbullying. In fact according to Pew Internet in 2013, Facebook’s network declined in teens because of the increased amount of bullying. Moreover, according to Pew Internet, nine out of ten teen Facebook users have reported that they have witnessed bullying on the site. If only the cyber attacks stopped there; but Instagram and Facebook are not alone.
Twitter has 15,000 bullying tweets a day! Snapchat, in recent years has also been largely associated with teen suicides. For example, in California, a high schooler named Matthew B committed suicide after a 10-second video of him in a school bathroom stall emerged on Snapchat with a degrading sexual comment. Both Snapchat and Twitter are built upon in the moment, fleeting moments. When someone ill-tempered lacks that moment to think twice about the level of cruelty caused, bullying goes viral. Likewise, even a good-natured person is deprived of that conscious moment to re-think the consequences of their post. This essentially transforms non-bullies into bullies!
One layer to complicate this issue is how accessible the victims are. 90 percent of teens in the United States have access to a cell phone, tablet, or portable electronic device. This non stop access to social media creates a pathway for constant bullying. Children are inevitable victims. To further complicate things, one has to consider the freedom of speech when it comes to potentially taking away social media privileges and sharing.
All social media companies aim to navigate this maze. They have to constantly answer the question – how do we demolish cyberbullying while protecting our brand of positive connection, while also not infringing on users’ freedom of speech? There are ways to retroactively fight cyber bullying. Some social media platforms created “unfriending”, or “blocking” those who the victim wants to take further precautions against; and even “reporting” those people who are doing serious harm.
These forms of defense are crucial, but how impactful are they? They are simply defensive, and not offensive in their approach. At the end of the day, people have to protect people. Permanence of a post in the cyberworld may be seriously detrimental to a reputation, but it also leaves a clear path to the culprit. This provides proof to parents and educators where the bullying is stemming from. As stated by the Huffington Post, “If parents are going to provide such access to their children, they must be held accountable for their online activities, including cyber-bullying.”
If only tracking the culprit was so simple. The blog, Third Parent, writes that 30 percent of teens would not report it to anyone if they were being cyberbullied. This calls for a larger conversation, in my opinion, about the need to come together in order to strike bullies hard. If as a group, we all reported bullying, the culture as a whole would be anti-bullying.
“90 percent of teens in the United States have access to a cell phone, tablet, or portable electronic devices” works both ways. Yes, it still means that 90% of our generation’s teens are vulnerable, but it also means that 90 percent of teens are armed to fight back. I personally have a cell phone, and have never seen any initiative formalized around the prevention of cyberbullying. According to the Huffington Post “If we’re going to have a zero-tolerance policy on this issue, then let’s really have one. We can’t be half-assed about it. Teens are committing suicide and we’re too often left scratching our heads wondering what could have been done to prevent it.”
We as active participants of society have to realize the detrimental effects that cyberbullying can have on kids and young adults such as, suicide, depression, anxiety, self harm, and the overall damage it can have to their well being. Like in the case of Tovanna, a nude photo at home can become viral. Social media has penetrated the intimacies of the home and unfortunately the safehaven of going home is no longer safe from bullying. This vulnerability is a loud pain point that adults need to recognize and take action. They must educate their kids on how to protect themselves from such an inevitable chilling reality. With cyberbullying having no physical fences, like that in recess or a playground, parents and educators alike must arm their children how to avoid bad “cyber playgrounds” and how to deal with the equivalent cyberbully.
Guardians, whether it be the parents or educators need to take the further offensive by explaining the deeply detrimental effects bullying can have on people. And most of all, explain to the teens to simply think twice before they post. They should not post anything personal on social media that they would not want shared. It may be simple to us, but kids need to learn what we have been taught. Our elders armed us with how to defend ourselves and better understanding the consequences of our own actions. We need to do the same. Further explaining to them that their post would not only be relevant in their current stage in life, but also applicable to every future stage of life they will be facing, whether they understand that stage in life or not, is crucial.
Cyberbullying is not, and should never be tolerated. By learning more about cyberbullying, consumers, both young and old, will hopefully be able to navigate various potentially dangerous messages or people, and enjoy the platforms as they were intended, a positive digital environment in all its connective wonder.