Cyberbullying: More Real Than You Think

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These days, it is can be difficult to surf the Internet without stumbling upon rude or offensive posts. Maybe it’s in the comments section of an article about a political figure or a video on YouTube. Comments can range from criticism to sarcasm to downright meanness—and appear to be the new no-holds-barred world of nameless, faceless, anonymous individuals who slash and burn their way through the Internet with no apparent repercussions. While many people can simply shrug off these kinds of comments as overactive emotion or egos out of control, children, preteens and teens can be especially vulnerable to their impact.

Cyberbullying in Context

In the brave new world of social media, cyberbullying has taken hold. Take YouTube, for example, where people of all ages can put their talents on display. While the ease and accessibility of the Internet allow videos to quickly get exposure and possibly even go viral, these same qualities also allow netizens (citizens of the Internet) to quickly spread thoughts or comments—mean or nice—on a mass scale. Instead of receiving encouragement, people eager to share their passion can instead receive mockery. These mean, hurtful words set the expectation that you should only share what is worthwhile; otherwise, anything below a certain standard warrants indiscriminate ridicule. Trolling, or throwing insulting and slanderous statements for no other reason than one’s own amusement, is encouraged as netizens perceive no repercussions to their actions. Unlike in the real world, the Internet appears not to be bound by societal norms, so people can act according to their whims.

The Extent of the Problem

Such an unsympathetic culture would likely be harmless if everyone shared the same attitude toward the Internet. In this scenario, people might be able to cope with personal attacks by treating every cyber critic as a hater, or a person who enjoys spiting others due to jealousy or irrationality, and dismissing them as such. However, the reality is, it’s nearly impossible to expect every netizen to remain indifferent to harsh comments or cyberpranks.

One reason is the great variance of age and sensitivity of individual users. A young child uploading a silly YouTube video of himself rapping, for example, may receive unintended backlash. While the child may simply be sharing a passion for music, instead of enjoying it for what it is, others may see the video as an opportunity to be mean. Unfortunately, the child can also read these comments, which, if taken personally, can be traumatic, perhaps even ending the child’s interest in music all together.

Cyberbullying can be even more pervasive and unchecked because of its link to the real world. Often, online personal attacks are actually extensions of bullying at school. So the same child who is the target of cyberbullies may also be the victim of schoolyard bullies. This dual threat can thus compound the victim’s trauma. Moreover, besides hurtful comments, cyberbullying can take the form of embarrassing photos, malicious jokes, threatening emails or texts and computer viruses. In the worst cases, the child may feel so ostracized both inside and outside of school that he or she develops serious psychological issues.

According to 2009 statistics, bullying affects 28 percent of all students aged 12 through 18, while cyberbullying affects 6 percent within the same group of students. The instances of cyberbullying have only increased, rather than decrease, with the growing influence of social media in our lives.

Legal Ramifications

The growing medium of the Internet is still quite novel in terms of the law. The only marked difference between cyberbullying and cyberharassment is the age of both the victim and the perpetrator, both of whom have to be underage to qualify as bullying. The seriousness of these occurrences are broken down into four main categories of threats: the kind, the frequency, the source and the nature.

The kinds of threats can include communication with lewd language, insulting a child directly or threatening a child. The frequency of the threats is determined by their increasing nature or if an outside third party becomes invested in the bullying or harassment. The source of the threats is determined by your child knowing (or suspecting) who’s bullying them or if a stranger may be involved. Lastly, the nature of the threats may be the clearest indicator of a potential crime. These may include breaking into someone’s account, stealing passwords, posting sexual images, sharing personal information about a minor or masquerading as a child for any reason. As the threat levels escalate for bullying, a better case can be made for law enforcement to prosecute and hopefully stop the bullying entirely.

A Parent’s Role

Unfortunately for parents, cyberbullying is not easy to trace. For starters, comments can be posted anonymously. Also, preteens and teens naturally fight their parents for privacy on their phones and online, which can further keep parents in the dark about what is really going on. One clue to suspect your child could be the victim of cyberbullying can be a sudden change in the child’s behavior or mood. Because these conditions can also be symptomatic of a child’s normal stage of development, it’s important to proceed with awareness—and seek professional help when needed. There are many helpful sites online including such organizations as Stop Cyberbullying.

One of the best places for parents to start is to offer unconditional emotional support to their child. Reprimanding them can be traumatic and detract from their normal development. It can be easy for parents to disregard cyberbullying as a problem and simply tell them to not take the comments seriously. But with the pervasiveness of technology in our lives, a child’s well-being can be severely affected if parents are indifferent.

One Final Note

Cyberspace can be a scary place if not navigated with some forethought. As always, the best prevention is open communication with your children, thereby allowing them to feel free to come to you with any questions or concerns. The best advice seems to be—ignoring the bully entirely. It may be easier said than done, but given the fact a bully’s only power stems from intimidation, turning the other cheek can still work wonders.