There are a lot of people who think that cyberbullying isn’t really a thing. Whenever a particularly heartbreaking incident hits the news cycle, there are those who ask, “How could this have happened? Why didn’t they just turn off the computer?”. This is a fairly rational, logical place to come at the issue from, but it also comes from a lack of information. It’s a topic that a lot of people don’t really get and so it’s important to understand exactly what makes the act so harmful.
StopBullying.gov is a pretty self explanatory government website; they define cyber bullying as “bullying that takes place using electronic technology.” I honestly don’t think this definition properly conveys the phenomenon. There are different kinds of cyber bullying, and while that definition certainly covers them all it doesn’t exactly explain why some cases are so much worse than others. And our continued lack of both understanding and action are perpetuating a very solvable problem.
Rebecca Ann Sedwick (died 2013, age 12)
One terrible recent case that helps illustrate the issue better is that of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a 12 year old from Florida. The bullying started over a “boyfriend issue” and apparently was so bad that Rebecca ended up cutting her wrists in December 2012, and was homeschooled for the rest of the year following physical harassment at school. After being enrolled in a new school the next fall the bullying followed her due to the other girls having access to her through social media. Unfortunately, Rebecca saw the only way out as taking her life and so she skipped school and jumped 3 stories to her death on September 9th, 2013. Rebecca was bullied by up to 15 girls at times, bombarding her social media with messages.
This poor girl had to endure countless messages specifically stating that she should die and that she should kill herself. And this was the message posted by one of her bullies after her eventual death:
As you can see in the picture, she received 30 likes on that status as well as 36 shares. This type of behavior only exacerbates the problem because it allows bullies to feel a sense of disconnect with what they’re doing, it’s like a mob mentality transferred into virtual space. We all know how nice it is when someone likes your Facebook contributions, imagine you had 30 people cheering you on in your bullying, might it suddenly feel empowering? For a 14 year old it must have been in at least a social context.
But the key element I would like to point out is the idea of this type of harassment not stopping or having any physical boundaries whatsoever. While she went to school with her bullies they no doubt taunted her at school and she also complained to her mother of physical threats. Then she would come home from that and endure messages egging her closer and closer to her own death. Even after removing herself physically from that environment she was then followed on social media platforms. Rebecca had no way to get away from their negative thoughts and feelings about her.
Adalia Rose (age 6)
Adalia Rose is a 6 year old girl with an extremely rare disease called progeria. The disease accelerates aging and most who suffer from it live from between their mid teens to their early twenties. This is what she looks like, in a picture with her mom Natalia:
Obviously, Adalia isn’t a normal kid, but her mother has shaved her head here to be her “twin”. I personally found this to be adorable, but apparently not everyone has the same opinion.
Adalia’s story is a long and complex one, documented in great detail here for any who are interested. To paraphrase, Natalia could not stand to take her daughter outside following the initial diagnosis due to the stares and comments so she secluded them inside the house. As most parents can attest, kids always want to copy their parents. So after observing Natalia use Facebook for some time, Adalia asked if she could use it to talk to friends and family just like her mom. So now Adalia had a Facebook page, a fan page in fact because Natalia thought it would be easier to maintain than another profile. They would post videos of her dancing and singing and generally just enjoying themselves. It picked up steam, and some outside help to with fundraising for a new house, and soon Adalia was internet famous.
But anyone who knows the internet knows that this can actually be a lot worse than people realize. Once she was known, trolls came out in full force, and Natalia was accused of taking the medical donations for herself. This turned out to be blatantly not true. And although the main antagonizer (he legitimately thought Adalia was being exploited by her mother) has been in contact with the family and desisted, there are still many out there who leave horrifying comments and spread incredibly distasteful memes.
The whole situation is a weird intersection between the concepts of cyberbullying and trolling that shows that they kind of go hand in hand. When looking at the motivation anyone would have for attempting to harass a 6 year old on the internet, especially one with so rare and terminal a disease, I would have to think a cry for attention plays a part. While this falls under the realm of cyberbullying, and is still an important case to consider, I think the easiest explanation is that sometimes people who feel bad about themselves have a little too much time on their hands for the internet. And there has to be greater repercussions for particularly nasty or irresponsible comments. The UK has obscenity laws that apply to social media. While there is a fine line between mediation and a lack of free speech, I still think it is something that should be explored.
I would first like to point out that while cyberbullying is a problem, it is definitely not an epidemic. But the numbers do not lie and I think tell the story that it is a significant problem. In their research summary, the Cyberbullying Research Center said that 24% of respondents indicated they were a victim of cyberbullying at least once, and 16% admitted to cyberbullying others at some point. It is very concerning that nearly a quarter of kids will experience this. Even if we cut that percentage in half twice and call that the “serious cases” that is still greater than 5% of kids.
And the longer we hold back on significant action, which means a paradigm shift for many more people than the kids, the more we risk internet vigilantism, which is an outside force with a separate agenda that often comes off the tracks. I think it’s that time again to take a good hard look at what is going on in our schools (because at the end of the day that’s where it starts) because a decent amount of children are being affected. Do we really want to live in a world where these types of things are okay? As someone who bullied others and was bullied himself growing up, it is deeply upsetting to see it still going on at such alarming rates.