The internet has changed the way we communicate. We’re living in a world where we are completely immersed in media through TV, news and social media.
While it has many positive values, it has also allowed the hateful to spread offence to a broader audience.
For the newer generations of this world, cyberbullying is becoming increasingly common. Not long ago, schoolyard bullies were confined to playgrounds, lunchroom corners and the back seats of buses.
But as younger children are becoming frequent internet users in today’s web-connected world, one may argue that the internet is the new schoolyard.
“The number of children and young people tormented at the hands of online trolls has increased by 88 per cent in five years. The 24/7 nature of social media and the feeling that they are unable to escape from the trolls that haunt them, only exacerbates the issue,” says a spokesperson for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).
Bullying is not a new concept. However, the internet and social media have given bullies additional channels to intimidate and harass.
[pullquote align=”right”]“It started at the age of 10 and later, pupils dubbed him ‘the most hated person in school’.”[/pullquote]Without editorial control and often hiding behind a veil of anonymity, vulnerable children are easy targets.
“Girls are usually targeted with negative comments about their bodies and looks. It’s used as a weapon,” says Sofia Berne, a licensed psychologist and senior lecturer at Gothenburg University.
“Boys often mention that they are attacked in online games, it can be a tough jargon there. They say demeaning things about each other, and also if one person isn’t always online with the others, he might be ostracised,” Berne continues.
Felix Alexander from Worcester, was 17 years-old when he committed suicide in 2016 after years of bullying, much of it exacerbated through internet attacks.
It started at the age of 10 when he was teased over a video game, and pupils later dubbed him ‘the most hated person in school’.
Another example is Brandy Vela, who shot herself in front of her family after tormentors created fake profiles for the 18-year-old where they offered sex for free and attached her phone number.
Sadly, these are only two cases out of many, many more.
“If you have good access to the internet, there’s naturally a bigger risk that you are harassed online. On the other hand, if you’re a victim of cyberbullying, you’re usually targeted in school too,” says Berne.
“Bullying can wreck young people’s lives, especially now that it doesn’t stop at the school gates. Cyber-bullying can follow them home until it becomes a persecution they cannot escape,” says the NSPCC.
The psychological reasons behind the phenomenon cyberbullying are various and wide-ranging.
Berne believes that anonymity often results in a person thinking that they won’t have to take the consequences of their actions and they therefore attack someone.
Also, it has to do with the fact that they won’t see that they’re hurting the other person.
However, among younger generations the anonymity doesn’t always play a huge role: “Sometimes, the cyberbullies want status and power in school, and that person won’t be liked but other people get scared of them and they become powerful,” says Berne.
In some cases, the behaviour can also be a result of difficult situations at home: “We know that those who bully are far more likely to have experienced stress or trauma, such as the death of a relative or their parents’ divorce,” says Sue Jones, Partnership Co-ordinator at Ditch the Label.
Many times when people are outspoken, they like to claim freedom of expression but its balance to hate crime is sometimes hard to juggle.
While you can come across a lot of material on the internet that offends you, very little of it may actually be illegal.
Although there is no legal definition of cyberbullying in the UK, there are a number of existing laws covering harassment, defamation and malicious communications that can be applied.
In recent years, many countries have introduced new legislation or have amended existing laws to incorporate digital abuse and harassment.
But while there is legislation to protect individuals on the internet, many children are unaware of these rules and are often too embarrassed to tell anybody if they’re being attacked online.
“Young people are now growing up in a digital environment which has no precedent, so although it feels natural and authentic to them, it is also an unknown world to navigate,” Jones told Artefact.
“12-25-year olds spend over 20 hours a week online and many do not have the skills to navigate their ‘online’ life,” she added.
[pullquote align=”right”]“Most ‘Terms and Conditions’ require a post-graduate degree level of education to understand them”[/pullquote]Ditch the Label is one of the world’s largest anti-bullying charities dedicated to promoting equality and providing support to young people who have been negatively affected by bullying and prejudice.
It was launched based on the experiences of one individual, Liam Hackett, who is now the CEO of the company. Existing in the same arena as the cyberbullies, most of their services are provided online.
“Children need information, knowledge, support, resilience and empowerment. We all have a role to play in ensuring we remember and respect that these are their rights and are not optional extras,” explains Jones.
“Most ‘Terms and Conditions’ are lengthy, often up to 14 pages long, and actually require a post-graduate degree level of education to understand them,” she says.
The internet was never created and intended for 10-year-old kids, but as time goes on, society is finding it hard to keep up.
In January 2017, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Ann Longfield, released a report saying youngsters are not prepared for what they are signing up to on the internet.
Although they are now the biggest users, children are being left to fend for themselves while parents hope they avoid the pitfalls.
Coinciding with the report was a speech by Theresa May, who talked about tackling everyday injustices.
Acknowledging many lobbying organisations and charities’ campaigns, the prime minister also announced that children who are victims of sexting and cyber-bullying will be given more support by schools.
“It remains a shocking injustice that the government does not know how many abused children and young people are not getting vital mental health support. As many as nine in ten children who are abused at an early age will develop a mental illness by the time they’re 18, but many are faced with lengthy waiting lists and difficulties accessing help,” said the NSPCC.
Internet usage is likely to only increase in the future, and younger and younger generations will explore the online world.
Cyberbullying has invaded previously safe spaces, and it is now a possibility to be bullied in plain sight of parents or guardians.
While our behaviour and society change, a guarding transition needs to be made from the playground to the internet.
“It is virtually impossible to avoid difficult situations so teaching strategies to deal with them is a massive help,” says Jones.
“It is imperative that adults, parents and teachers, intervene to protect them, because we have learned over the years that bullying does not stop on its own, left alone it gets worse,” the NSPCC concludes.
Featured image by Phillippe Put via Flickr CC