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Taming the Trolls
Why is cyberbullying so pervasive, and how can we protect ourselves and our children?
By Courtney Suciu
In June 2019, the World Anti-Bullying Forum convened in Dublin, “aimed at broadening understanding of bullying in educational settings.”
According to a news release from the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published by the U.S. Federal News Service1, cyberbullying was addressed as special topic, with online harassment on the rise.
“Data from seven countries in Europe show that the proportion of children aged 11-16 years who use the Internet and who had experienced cyberbullying increased from 7% in 2010 to 12% in 2014,” the report read.
The consequences of being a victim of bullying are significant. Children who are bullied are more than twice as likely to miss school, the report noted, and “they are more likely to expect to leave formal education after finishing secondary school. Children who are bullied score lower in mathematics and reading tests, and the more often they are bullied, the worse their score.”
With the problem only worsening, it’s critical that we take proactive measures to protect ourselves and our children. The first step is understanding what cyberbullying is. What behaviors does it encompass and who does it affect? Why is it so common? And is there hope for a safer, kinder cyber world of the future?
In the book Bullying and Young People2, cyberbullying is described in pragmatic terms as:
The deliberate use of social media platforms, information and communication technologies, new media technologies (i.e. email, phones, chatrooms, discussion groups, applications, instant messaging, blogs, video clips, cameras, hate websites/pages, blogs and gaming sites) to repeatedly harass, threaten, humiliate and victimize another with the intention to cause harm, reputation damage, discomfort and intimidation.
However, in her thesis The Online Culture of Cyberbullying3, Molly-Gloria Harper offered a more theoretical understanding of the concept. Harper views cyberbullying as “a culturally constructed phenomenon only able to exist because of the coupling of technology and social media with modern day youth culture.”
Harper pointed out that for previous generations, youth culture has been associated with rebellion, the “digital generation” is unusual and has perhaps wielded more influence over the mainstream than young people have in decades past.
As an example, she looked to the meteoric rise of social media in recent years. First embraced by those 18-24 years-old, communication via the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is now ubiquitous among most age groups.
While young people have long had a profound role in shaping mainstream culture (think of the popularization of rock and hip-hop, fashion trends, slang, etc.), Harper argued that the “digital generation,” through its use of social media platforms – and consequently the way they interact offline – has sparked “systematic changes to the culture.”
In other words, youth culture’s embrace of digital communication hasn’t only changed the way individuals interact socially, but how society interacts at large.
So, what does this have to do with cyberbullying? Harper explained:
Adolescence is a time where youth attempt to establish smaller communities of like-minded peers with the larger culture in attempts to gain an understanding of themselves and experiment with new things and indulge in what is interesting to them. Previously this was predominantly done in neighborhoods, playgrounds, and school yards – anywhere youth would hang out.
As young people struggle to figure out who they are and where they fit in, they have always been susceptible to bullying – and possibly, to bullying others. What’s changed is that digital interactions have largely displaced face-to-face contact.
On one hand, being able to communicate with a wider variety of people in a wider variety of locations makes it easier to find those smaller communities of likeminded peers. On the other, it also increases opportunities for exploitation, harassment, humiliation and other abuses.
And while all of us are vulnerable to cyberbullying, the consequences for people victimized at this critical time in their social development can be especially damaging.
The psychological impact of victimization
Dr. Joshua Taylor, who is featured in the counselor-training video Exploring Cyber-Bullying in the 21st Century: What Every Counselor Needs to Know, and What Young People Really Think!4, noted, “One of the things that I have found in talking with young people about cyberbullying is there's a sense that no-one's going to protect them. That the bullying won't stop.”
In interviews with young victims of cyberbullying, it’s easy to understand why they feel this way.
Taylor spoke with a young woman named Shayna who discussed how integral social media is in her life. Because she has many online connections in another country, she relies on digital communication to keep in touch with them and for this reason, like a lot of teenagers, “my cell phone is always with me, it's always on.”
But, as a consequence, that means she never gets a break from the constant feedback she’s receiving via social media, and this can interfere with her daily activity and wellbeing. “If someone says something to me, I instantly get it…If you get something instantly that’s negative, it kind of just stops everything you are doing.”
“I think a lot of people,” Shayna added, meaning the adults in her life, “think it's easier to ignore if it's online because you can just read it and go, okay, whatever.”
But it’s not easy to ignore a constant bombardment of the kind of criticism she described:
My first instance of cyberbullying was with my boyfriend at the time and we had, like, a good face to face relationship but then any time we were on Facebook or on MSN he would tell me things like, 'Oh, you looked really fat today.' or like, 'You had a really big lunch.' Just like mean things that just, like, tore down my self-esteem. Made me feel really bad about myself.
As a result, Shayna, who saw herself as a typically boisterous, outgoing person, became self-conscious and stopped spending time with her other friends. “I was always miserable,” she said, and the situation exacerbated her compulsion for self-harm.
She said, “cutting was the only way, the only thing that I really had control over and the only way that I could, like, as dumb as it sounds, make me feel better about myself.”
Shayna revealed that most of the therapists she saw to help her deal with the cutting were dismissive of “the whole bullying subject,” and Taylor explained why this is a major concern:
This is a very serious issue because cyber bullying is comorbid with a lot of conditions. Depression, substance abuse, obsessive compulsive behaviors, self-injuring behaviors. So, it's not so much ‘why cyber-bullying?’ but really more of ‘how does cyber bullying play a role in many of the mental health issues that we tackle on a day-to-day basis?’
When young people don’t feel supported or validated by the adults they turn to for help, it can only increase their feelings of hopelessness and isolation. For this reason, Taylor said, “I think it's very important to convey this message that if they come forward and they talk to someone about it, that as clinicians, as educators, as parents, we're going to do everything that we can to protect that young person.”
What is the solution?
When it comes to the prevention of cyberbullying, Taylor suggested it begins with parents, educators, counselors and adults in general:
It starts with us modeling appropriate behavior, modeling empathy and kindness to those around us. Young people don't come out as babies bullying. They learn it. And they learn it from us. If we really want to have a conversation about how we can address cyber bullying I think it starts with us.
While he’s right that we can all make a better effort to treat each other with more respect and civility, other experts in cyberbullying believe the solutions to this problem might have to be executed within the cybersphere itself, built into the technology.
In her dissertation Designing Cyberbullying Prevention and Mitigation Tools5, Zahara Ashktorab “employ[ed] multidisciplinary methods to evaluate data generated by teens on social media and work[ed] with teens to develop and test potential cyberbullying mitigation solutions.”
Ashktorab argued that “solutions focused on improving users’ wellbeing after being targeted online offer designers a valuable tool in fighting back against the harm caused by cyberbullying” and based on the interdisciplinary studies conducted in her dissertation, provided recommendations for the design of cyberbullying prevention and mitigation tools.
“I argue that the complex nature of cyberbullying made more challenging by the affordances of social media, cannot be solved through strictly algorithmic approaches,” she wrote.
In other words, online abuse isn’t going to be remedied through creating computer programs that overlook the actual, personal experiences of those who suffer the most harm.
Because the motivations of teenagers using social media and other digital spaces are often very different from – and poorly understood by – their adult counterparts, designers and programmers may not take into consideration the factors and features that can abet online harassment and abuse.
“In recent years,” Ashktorab explained, “the few attempts of designing for cyberbullying prevention have not included the perspective of those most affected: young people.”
In contrast, she looked at potential technical solutions that take into account data and insights about, and provided by, teenagers and their online habits and experiences. It’s a revolutionary perspective that can change – or perhaps even save – the lives of young people like Shayna.
But these things take time. Such cyberbullying prevention and mitigation tools have yet to actually be developed. Ashktorab concluded her dissertation with suggestions for future studies to evaluate the effectiveness and functionality of her design recommendations.
Meanwhile, heed Taylor’s advice and contribute to the mitigation and prevention of cyberbullying. We can take seriously and support young people who are suffering from online abuse.
And maybe we can all make a better effort to model more respectful and empathetic behavior online (and off).
- NEW EVIDENCE ON BULLYING REVEALED AT WORLD ANTI-BULLYING FORUM. (2019, Jun 25). US Fed News Service, Including US State News. ProQuest One Academic.
- Healey, J. (Ed.). (2018). Bullying and Young People. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
- Harper, M. (2017). The Online Culture of Cyberbullying: Examining the Cycle of Subcultures Through Media Constructions of Cyberbullying As a Deviant Youth Internet Phenomenon. (Order No. 10268485). Available from ProQuest One Academic.
- Microtraining Associates (Producer). (2012). Exploring Cyber-Bullying in the 21st Century: What Every Counselor Needs to Know, and What Young People Really Think! [Video file]. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
- Ashktorab, Z. (2017). Designing Cyberbullying Prevention and Mitigation Tools (Order No. 10615598). Available from ProQuest One Academic.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu