The role of social media in cyberbullying

“Come forward,” campaigns say.

“Don’t suffer in silence,” they plead.

“It will be okay,”they promise.

But you can’t. You must. And it won’t.

And the very reason you can hide the truth is the very reason your bully can too.

You’re separated by a screen.

Today, every time a tweet is sent or a status is updated, someone, somewhere, is breaking. Social networking sites are being used to emotionally torture people who will spend the rest of their lives trying to recover. But with each vibration of their phone, they’ll be reminded they can’t, because bullying has adapted to the digital age and social media is allowing it to thrive.

In some cases, cyberbullying is similar to what a victim would experience at school – instead of being left out of a group activity, they are left out of a group chat, instead of a rumour being spread around a classroom, it is spread on a website, and instead of hearing themselves ridiculed, they read it.

But in other ways, the constant, instantaneous communication enabled by social media presents a bully with new methods of torment.

It allows a person to upload an embarrassing photo or video within minutes of an event taking place, and for that photo or video to be circulated within seconds. By the time an individual is made aware, it has been distributed to such an extent that the situation can’t be remedied.

It is a small step from a bully digitally documenting another’s pain to them plotting to humiliate someone for the very same reason, and it is one often taken. The social convention of respecting boundaries has all but disappeared. Users willingly share intimate moments and images online. Even sexting has become so commonplace as to evoke little to no reaction. But in the matter of cyberbullying, people are made privy to a victim’s private life by no choice of their own.

So a traumatised teenager becomes a trending hashtag or widely shared story, and the person responsible disappears into the masses.

That is, if they were ever known.

Whisper, Yik Yak, Confide, and Ask.fm are all part of a new breed of digital messaging which allow users to remain anonymous.  The apps were designed as a platform for the fearful to speak openly, but they have become a conduit for bullies to do their damage without threat of identification.

Anonymous abuse is not exclusive to these apps, however. A person need only create a fake account – or impersonate their victim – on Facebook or Twitter and they have thwarted the supposed transparency of the platforms.

It is argued that anonymity ‘frees’ people from the pressures of society and morality, and the behaviour of users proves it so. There is a great disparity between the way a person acts online and how they conduct themselves in real life. People feel empowered, perhaps even invincible, on social media, and it is this feeling that makes the latest manifestation of bullying its most monstrous yet.

Yet, once a bully logs off, that person and that part of their life ceases to exist.

The person responsible often feels no connection to their victim and can readily distance themselves from the pain they are inflicting. They do what they do because they can. Social media gives them protection, access, and a way to satisfy their boredom – the unholy trinity of online abuse.

A victim, on the other hand, is exposed. The companies’ commitment to freedom of expression means they take a passive approach in terms of regulation. In the event of an account being reported, a person or team will assess the content and if they deem it serious enough to warrant interference with a user’s right to express themselves, they will take laughable ‘action’. The user may be barred from the platform until they remove the content that was reported, or they may be banned permanently. So, really, they get a slap on the wrist or have to open a new account.

It is thus up to the victim to defend themselves by way of two equally ineffective choices; make their account private or block the person.

Do we really believe either of the two will stop a tech-savvy teenager? They certainly didn’t stop the bullies who drove 12 year old Rebecca Sedwick to suicide in September, 2013.

Terrorised relentlessly for months, offline and online, Rebecca did what the sites suggested and more – she closed her Facebook account and moved to another school. It wasn’t enough. Nor was it enough for the countless victims who changed their numbers, who were accompanied to and from school by their parents, and who relocated.

They found her. They found them. All thanks to social media.

We can’t eradicate the problem of bullying, but we curtail it, and great efforts have been made to do so – all of which are frustrated by social networking sites. They open locked doors, pursue people across borders, and push them to the brink.

Social media makes abuse truly inescapable and is therefore indubitably a conduit for violence.

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