Cyberbullying, trolling, online harassment – it’s all the same – someone hiding behind a device making online attacks and verbal assaults on another individual or group without regard to the consequences. The viciousness and cruelty of these posts cause hurt, anger and anxiety. It is increasingly leading to self-harm and, in some cases, even suicide.
Recently, a typical eighteen year-old high school girl found herself the victim of a merciless cyberbully who used an untraceable smartphone app to harass her for months on end. Despite her family’s best attempts to stop the cyber abuse, the attacks continued, leaving the girl so despondent and hopeless that she felt she only had one option left to her… After sending her family a message that said, “Please remember that I love you and that I am sorry for everything,” she proceeded to shoot herself in front of her father as he desperately begged her to reconsider. This is only one of many such tragic outcomes of the dangerous trend of online bullying.
It is estimated that as many as fifty percent of teens have been the victims of cyberbullying, making this damaging practice all too commonplace nowadays. As a society, we need to say that enough is enough, and take meaningful steps to end this abusive behavior. One of the biggest hurdles to achieving this is that technology makes it possible for bullies to do their dirty work anonymously; identifying the perpetrators can be extremely difficult, if not impossible. As such, those without moral or ethical codes are free to post comments and wreak havoc on others without consequence.
Parents and schools need to commit to teaching digital citizenship and safety to our children from the time they are old enough to have access to a computer or smartphone. The respect and understanding that we generally employ when speaking face to face are becoming largely absent in our online communication. We live in a world where entire relationships are conducted through texting, completely eliminating the component of in-person interaction. Perhaps this lack of intimacy detracts from the traditionally practiced protocols of kindness and understanding.
We must work to teach values of respect and compassion. We must also seek protection against the bullies and make them accountable for their actions. Many argue that there is no legal recourse against a lone poster making attacks, but, in fact, there are active claims which site harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, stalking, menacing, defamation, and slander. Lawsuits brought against aggressive offenders have resulted in some relief to victims.
The question we should start asking is whether social media companies should continue to receive hall passes for the negative behaviors that occur on their sites. Is it time to ask them to take a stand on digital citizenship and be the leaders in this arena?
Cyberbullying, online harassment, or trolling may be indicative of mental instability and a fearlessness about breaking the law. As upsetting or infuriating as it can be to be the recipient of cyberbullying, it is critical to not respond. Engaging with bullies often makes matters worse because they can become emboldened and escalate the behavior.
If you or someone you know is being cyber-bullied, report it immediately to the internet service provider (ISP) or cellphone provider. They can help block unwanted posts. It is also important to document communications in case law enforcement needs to get involved.
Finally, remember that walking away can be powerful. It denies the bully the reward he/she typically seeks in victims – fear. Taking power away from them is critical. We need to make digital citizenship a priority to the next generation coming online. Redefining our online culture to one of that operates based on compassion and kindness is the first step in ending the negative cycle.