That I can still remember the face of the school bully I finally had to confront is a luxury most cyberbullying victims don’t have. Some of them are driven to despair as their tormentors exploit technology to hide their identities – a behavior that has led makers of popular anonymous apps like Yik Yak to block student access at middle and high schools across the U.S.
But technology might be more a facilitator than a culprit. The Cybersmile Foundation‘s co-founder, Scott Freeman, whose non-profit group supports cyberbullying victims, sheds more light on cyberbullying in a chat with TECHtonics.
Q. How big of a problem is cyberbullying?
Freeman: Cyberbullying is global. Recent statistics show – across the board, across the planet. Between a quarter and a third of teenagers are being affected regularly. It tends to be 11-16 [years olds] … but it does affect younger and older people as well.
Q. Is cyberbullying race, culture or gender-specific?
Freeman: No. The studies we’ve done and studies other people have done have suggested that apart from a link to teenage girls, there seems to be no particular class or creed that are affected any more than anybody else … Teenage girls are the primary victims.
Q. Why teenage girls, specifically?
Freeman. Teenage girls tend to use social media slightly differently. They tend to spend longer time on it. Our studies have shown that teenage girls spend more time on social media. Therefore it would suggest that the longer time spent there, the more likely that they see it to occur.
Q. How does a person become a cyberbullying target?
Freeman: In a classic case of cyberbullying, they would start being made to feel threatened or upset in one way or the other. Someone’s doing it intentionally. So depending on the platform, it would be direct messages sent or, you know, Facebook posts, or whatever platform they are on. And the person would find that they were getting relentless negativity projected towards them, which is always completely unjust and undeserved … And then, the problem with cyberbullying is because it is so public and the reach is immediately so big that more people get to participate as the problem grows.
Q. So is the cyberbully a stranger or an acquaintance of the victim?
Freeman: They normally have a suspicion at the beginning who it is, who is doing it. And people use anonymity to do this. This is in the most classic sense … It normally starts with possibly a disagreement or an argument that could happen at school or could happen on a forum that they frequent, where they actually have a previous contact with the person. And what happens – once it turns into a case of cyberbullying or harassment, more people who see, who are exposed to the abuse actually get involved by publishing posts themselves and that’s when we see the problem completely escalate.
Q. So is the cyberbully spurred by a perceived weakness in the victim?
Freeman: When people show any weakness, unfortunately their perpetrators don’t see the same empathy as conventional bullying, where you might see the child in the corner saying ‘please don’t hurt me’, crying. And then the hardiest of bullies would have empathy, whereas with the online bullying you can’t see that, so you could potentially have a child on the brink of suicide. And the perpetrators have absolutely no idea. So they continue to do this. So I don’t think the weakness comes into it. But certainly retaliation encourages more cyberbullying.
Q. Is cyberbullying particular to some websites more than others?
Freeman: It’s prevalent across all websites. And we used to be of the thought that there were some kinds of technological fixes to this problem, i.e., filters that reduce the ability to post anonymous posts. But as we have spent more time around the children that are suffering, we’ve seen that the real problem is a behavioral one. So irrelevant to their particular platforms, the one constant is this being mean to each other. That’s the ultimate bottom line. There are some platforms where there are higher numbers of incidences, but that tends to be reflected to the higher number of users.
Q. What is the effect of cyberbullying?
Freeman: Cyberbullying is devastating because there are so many different facets to it. Social media is so important to teenagers now. The adults – we don’t understand how important because we knew the world without it … But for children who don’t know any different, social media is so integral in their life that they can’t see life without it. So if their [time] in using social media is being made unpleasant or they feel like they can’t continue because it’s so embarrassing because the whole reach and exposure is so big, then that’s what gets children so depressed. It causes depression, self-harm, social isolation, school educational problems, suicide attempts and ultimately suicide. Its all-encompassing destruction is immense.
Q. What can parents do?
Freeman: If you are going to let your child, for instance, go on social media a bit earlier than they possibly should be, you need to make sure your child is emotionally intelligent enough to do this. And then make sure … as learned behavior from day one – that they value their privacy highly and they know the consequences of using these platforms and the Internet in general that once something is posted, you don’t own it anymore. This is public property. You can’t just delete it. So there’s a time and a place for certain tech controls and help. But there is no quick technological fix for this problem.
Q. So how do you address the problem?
Freeman: Cyberbullying is across the board. It’s across all platforms … We need to spend more resources on the root of the problem, which is behavior, and slightly less on the tech side purely because we are seeing so many mixed messages coming from official standpoints that that is doing as much damage as the cyberbullying because it is making parents and children and indeed non-profit organizations not know where they stand. We’ve got no clear messaging.
Q. Can technology help fight cyberbullying?
Freeman: There are parental controls, parental filters. And the most underrated tech tool there is are the privacy and safety settings in the social networks. They are there. We just need to you know, encourage parents and enable them to teach their kids, their children to use them.
Q. Is technology part of the problem?
Freeman: We can’t blame technology. We’ve had generations and generations to learn our etiquette and social behavior and we haven’t had time to learn that online yet in line with the growth, so that we shouldn’t blame technology. We should embrace technology. And we should actually be using the technology to fix this problem … It’s so important for people to start realizing that this problem can be fixed through education.