Dangers of cyberbullying

Mina Adel Gayed, Saturday 8 Feb 2020

Cyberbullying has burgeoned into a global phenomenon that poses serious hazards to its mostly teenage victims


Stumbling on a Facebook post including blatant sarcasm and bullying has sadly become not uncommon today, with many having little doubt that social media has provided a platform for bullying and harassment.

One case in point is the fact that a page has recently been created on Facebook with the title “Yes to Bullying” and has so far boasted 63,740 members and likes. The page claims that its purpose is not to poke fun at a certain race or religion or ridicule people’s looks, but to point to the “bad behaviour of some people in order to bring about a better society”.

A quick look at the page, however, immediately proves otherwise. The page gives voice to a group of young bullies who have decided who should be bullied or ridiculed by the page’s 63,000 members according to their own rules and code of ethics. They violate the privacy of the victims in the process, sometimes posting screenshots of their private chats and poking fun at personal messages.

Many of these messages may provoke laughter, particularly those that reveal immature or self-humiliating behaviour on the part of targeted celebrities, but violating the personal lives of people is still unethical and unacceptable. Cyberbullying can have even more serious repercussions when the victim is a child or teenager, and the issue has recently come into the global limelight with experts discussing solutions worldwide.

Bullying is widespread in many societies, especially among teenagers and children. It has found a stronger voice on social media, creating cyberbullying, a form of online harassment which is criminalised by law in some countries.

The phenomenon has received global attention, and experts have been seeking definitions and solutions to combat it. According to Stopbullying.gov, a website of the US government, “cyberbullying can occur through SMS, text messages, and apps, or online in social media, forums, or gaming where people can view, participate in, or share content.”

“Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else,” the US site writes. “It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else, causing embarrassment or humiliation. Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behaviour.”

A survey carried out in 2019 by the UN children’s agency UNICEF attempted to highlight the prevalence of cyberbullying and its impact on young people, warning that “more than a third of young people in 30 countries report being a victim of online bullying.” One in five reported having skipped school due to cyberbullying, according to the survey released by UNICEF and the UN special representative of the secretary-general for violence against children.

Almost three-quarters of the sample of young people surveyed said that “social networks, including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, are the most common place for online bullying”.

“Connected classrooms mean school no longer ends once a student leaves class, and, unfortunately, neither does schoolyard bullying,” said UNICEF Director Henrietta Fore. “Improving young people’s educational experience means accounting for the environment they encounter online as well as offline.”

Unfortunately, Egypt is no exception to the problem, and observers say cyberharassment and cyberbullying have been on the rise, sometimes reaching criminal proportions.

One case in point was a video that went viral on social media early in 2018 involving a boy in a government school sobbing and begging his teacher to let him take a nap. The boy called his teacher hajja, an honourific title, but appeared to receive little sympathy from his teacher who stood holding a mobile phone in one hand and a stick in the other.

The video provoked wide criticism of the teacher’s attitude, but many also joked at the language of the boy, possibly leaving him with emotional scars. The child’s father appeared on a TV talk show, saying that the video had been shot on the first day his child had gone back to school after sick leave. He lamented the fact that his son had been too embarrassed to go to school after the video went viral on social media.

Cyberbullying can be penalised, especially when the target is an adult. This was the case in an incident involving an Egyptian media student who was questioned by his university after he had posted a photograph of himself with a female colleague from South Sudan on Facebook.

The post included a racist note that ridiculed the African roots and dark colour of the girl and soon sparked outrage on social media. The university charged the student with cyberharassing his Sudanese female colleague.

VULNERABLE YOUNG VICTIMS: But cyberbullying usually goes unpunished, especially in cases where the victim is a child who can hardly defend himself.

Many child-rights groups and organisations have studied the phenomenon, seeking to increase awareness of it and suggest solutions.

The Canadian Centre for the Protection of Children, a charity dedicated to the personal safety of children, has warned that cyberbullying, which is “a form of extreme bullying among youth via technology,” may have serious ramifications on youngsters, for example. “It is abusive, targeted, deliberate and repeated behaviour that is intended to damage and harm another young person,” the Centre explained.

In the same vein, UNICEF says that “cyberbullying involves posting or sending electronic messages including text, pictures or videos aimed at harassing, threatening or spreading rumours about another person via a variety of digital platforms such as online social networks, chat rooms and blogs.”

Cyberbullying “is often motivated by anger, revenge or frustration. Often, cyberbullying is also sparked by a need for entertainment, attention, or simple boredom by young people having too much time on their hands or little supervision,” it said.

The results can be devastating, according to psychologist Amina Diab. “Cyberbullying is like a weapon,” Diab, a member of the I’m Against Bullying Campaign organised by UNICEF in Egypt, warned. “One shot, one tap, or one click is all it takes, and the life of the child being bullied can be ruined forever.”

In 2007, a sample of 1,963 middle-schoolers from one of the largest school districts in the United States completed a survey of Internet use and experiences. The survey concluded that “youth who experienced traditional bullying or cyberbullying, as either an offender or a victim, had more suicidal thoughts and were more likely to attempt suicide than those who had not experienced such forms of peer aggression.”

Moreover, “victimisation was more strongly related to suicidal thoughts and behaviours than offending.” The study concluded that “adolescent peer aggression must be taken seriously both at school and at home, and a suicide-prevention and intervention component is essential within comprehensive bullying response programmes implemented in schools.”

It is impossible to have an accurate tally of the number of cyberbullied children in different countries, especially since many children feel reluctant to report it even to their parents. Recent studies, however, show that about one in every four teenagers has been a victim to online bullying and that about one in six admits they have been bullied online.

Some surveys show that more than half of all teenage respondents said they had suffered abuse on social media, and experts are warning that prolonged exposure to severe and frequent cyberbullying could put victims at greater risk of anxiety and depression as a result. In some rare cases, some children have attempted suicide, and, as studies warn, cyberbullying has made children more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts.  

Diab directs her message to parents, asking them to “please monitor your children’s activities online. Highlight that while it’s good to have many friends, it’s even cooler to be kind to those that need you the most. Do whatever it takes to make sure that your child feels important, loved and safe at home. With your love as their shield, your children can dodge cyberbullying.”

TYPES OF CYBERBULLYING: Hanaa Al-Ramli, a consultant on family and child web culture and author of Champions of the Internet that includes solutions to cyberbullying, concurred.

She told Al-Ahram Weekly that cyberbullying was “an aggressive attitude and a form of the web abuse committed by a vicious person who has negative intentions, such as manipulation, slandering, blackmailing, harassment, embarrassing, annoying, threatening and sexual harassment.”

Cyberbullying takes different forms according to the purpose and motivation of the bully, according to Al-Ramly. Electronic disguise is a type of cyberbullying where the bully uses pseudonyms to post comments or threats via electronic forums, e-mail, or websites, for example.  Electronic harassment is another form of cyber-violence where the bully sends hostile messages aimed at one or more persons.

Cyberharassment is yet another broad category that includes sending online messages containing immoral content, threats, hostile and intimidating comments, or attacking someone or a group of people using hostile language and aggressive insults. Outing, also known as doxing, is a term used to mean creating scandal about a person by sharing his personal messages, especially those with sensitive content, or private pictures without his knowledge or consent in an online group with the aim of humiliating and harming the reputation of the victim.

Exclusion is yet another form of cyberbullying where the victim is excluded, uninvited and left out of an online group where he can still see other friends being invited and interacting in messages and conversations with mutual friends. Electronic threatening is where the bully sends online threats to others directly or on public chats using malicious texts and phrases, posting inappropriate photographs on social media, or posting links to sites containing such images.

Other types of cyberbullying may include slander and defamation or a form of humour that causes harm to the victim. “These are all forms of behaviour that are spreading in our society in the absence of legal awareness, since many still do not know that the identity of the bully can be easily tracked even if he uses a fake name and account,” Al-Ramli said.

To counter such vicious acts, Al-Ramli suggests spreading awareness through media programmes, workshops, and seminars using eye-catching techniques and encouraging young people to use the Internet in a more positive way.

“The media should play a role in spreading awareness, putting cybercrimes in the limelight and inviting experts to discuss the problem and suggest solutions,” Al-Ramli said. “A government committee should also be formed to combat cyberbullying.” This should include members from the ministries concerned, as well as educationalists, psychologists, sociologists, teachers, legal experts, experts in information security and cybercrimes, and media professionals.

“Designing creative programmes to combat cyberbullying that also involve school students would definitely help curb the spread of this negative phenomenon,” Al-Ramli added.

SIGNS AND SOLUTIONS: There are various signs that could suggest that a child is involved in cyberbullying, as well as recommendations to help tackle and prevent the phenomenon.

UNICEF has posted on its Website signs that can help parents recognise that their child may be a victim of cyberbullying. Parents may notice a change (increase or decrease) in their child’s use of electronic devices, for example. They may notice that their child “begins to avoid social situations” and may “display extreme sadness, loss of interest and isolation from people and activities”.

Being secretive by hiding screens when others are near and a sudden shutdown of social media accounts or the creation of new ones are signs that a child may have been the victim of online harassment or bullying, according to UNICEF.  

When young people were asked questions about “their experiences of online bullying and violence, where it most frequently happens, and who they think is responsible for ending it,” by the UN agency, “some 32 per cent of those polled believed governments should be responsible for ending cyberbullying. 31 per cent said young people should be responsible and 29 per cent said Internet companies.”

“Since motives differ, the solutions and suggestions for responses will also differ for each situation as there is no ‘one size fits all’ where cyberbullying is concerned,” the poll concluded.

But teenagers themselves can also be part of the problem, and thus experts have provided guidelines for them to follow.

Some of them include:

- Teach your child to ignore the bully. Responding to a bully’s messages could encourage him to go on bullying. Your child should inform you if he is subject to threats or blackmail and you should report this to the police;

- Inform the school about the bully in case he is a peer of your child;

- Help your child set his or her privacy settings on social media to block or delete a bully’s account. Take a screenshot of prior contacts and any offensive messages that could help any investigations;

- Ask your child to change his email address and username. Deleting accounts for a period of time can give bullied children an important emotional break and a relief from harsh online comments before they start setting up a new account that should typically include only trusted family and friends;

- If sexual images and/or video clips of your child are published on the Internet, whether real or fake, contact the site where they were published. Popular sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have a reporting service, and they give priority to situations related to children and teenagers. It is important that the report includes the exact URL of the post you want to report, together with the age of your child at the time the photograph or video were taken;

- Being close to your child in such situations can give him support, strength, and a sense of security. Aim to educate your children to refuse to participate in bullying or share them on their accounts or even like or interact with bullying messages;

- Be aware that teenagers often do not share experiences that they feel embarrassed or ashamed of with their parents. So don’t assume that you will know if there is a problem;

- Watch your child’s interactions with his friends on social media and read their comments, and teach him to establish and respect personal boundaries when using technology, reminding him that not everything should be said or published on social media;

- Finally, let your child know that it is not his fault if he is bullied online. He is not the only one to face this problem, and you might even tell him about your own experiences with bullying as a child in order to reassure him.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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