Not too long ago, if you'd heard the phrase cyberbullying you might have thought it related to nefarious fictional characters in a computer game. Now, however, most of us are painfully aware of this modern scourge, where people (usually youngsters) are subjected to harassment, libellous accusations, mockery and worse, all online.
The internet, that largely unregulated digital Wild West, where law and order are often entirely absent, is where young people spend inordinate amounts of time, and this provides safe haven for a breed of bully that hits with a keyboard instead of a clenched fist.
“When I was at school,” says David Robinson, an expat schoolteacher and father of two teenage boys, “if a bully was giving you a hard time or threatening you in some way, your home was a completely safe zone. You could run back to this sanctuary, slam the door shut and know you’d be OK, at least until the following day. Now, though, forget it. There is no escape from it because everyone’s online all the time.”
Gaining insight into those bullied
Last year, Ditch the Label, an international anti-bullying charity, worked with the United Nations on the largest study of bullying in the United Kingdom. It surveyed 10,020 people between the ages of 12 and 20, in partnership with schools and colleges, to gain insight into the lives that young adults live online. The research found that bullying affects more than half a million young people in the UK every week. It also discovered that 68 per cent admitted to being abusive to others, while one in three people under the age of 20 lived in fear of being bullied online.
Liam Hackett, founder and chief executive of Ditch the Label, says: "Young people are being given unprecedented access to a world of information from an incredibly early age, often without being taught the appropriate social or media-information literacy skills required to critically and responsibly navigate around and engage through the internet."
In fact, just under half of the respondents said that they considered "real life" to be things that happen only offline, which, Hackett says, suggests that as a society we need to invest more time in teaching "netiquette" in schools and colleges to help young people navigate the web in safer ways.
As grim and as damaging as it is, cyberbullying is viewed by most experts as one factor among many. “The more traditional methods,” Robinson says, “are still extremely effective, and in many instances the youngsters who are bullied online are bullied in school, too, or at the mall, or the playground. Bullies will use every tactic they can to achieve their aim in making themselves feel better by harming others.”
Bullying on social media
Fourteen-year-old Ollie knows all about this. His family relocated to the UAE from Australia three years ago and he has kept in touch with many of his friends through Facebook. But someone from his old school began posting cruel comments on his wall and things quickly got out of hand. "It wasn't all that serious at first," he says. "I thought it was a bit of fun and laughed it off. He'd never been a good friend, but we used to hang out with some of the same kids and there hadn't been any problems back then. And then it got a bit nasty, saying some horrible things about me that weren't true, which was embarrassing because my new friends at school here saw the comments before I could delete them, and some started making fun of me."
He says that, on the one hand, he didn't feel physically threatened because the bully was thousands of kilometres away, but on the other, the impact locally became real and there was little he thought could be done about it because he was so far away.
"I have an iPhone, and it got to the stage where it was going off all the time [with alerts] as others joined in. It got me down, and my mum and dad noticed there was something wrong with me. Eventually, I told them and they sorted it out straight away." His parents offered practical help rather than lecturing on the dangers of social media. They quickly tracked down the parents of the bully and made contact.
“They didn’t hear back, but the problem just stopped and everyone here seemed to drop it, too.” Ollie admits that it could have been a lot worse and, he says, while he still uses Facebook, he’s become familiar with its block function.
The effects of cyberbullying
As bad as it is for the victims, we should not underestimate the effects that cyberbullying can have on the person responsible for it, or on their often-oblivious families. What the perpetrators may forget, or are unaware of, is that even anonymous online posts can usually be traced to an individual computer, tablet or smartphone. Everything we do online leaves a digital footprint, and if a concerned victim or parent informs the police about a case of bullying, then it's possible to trace the source. The first thing some parents know of it is when a police officer pays them a visit.
A mother who spoke to the BBC anonymously in October last year said that her daughter was found to have sent threatening messages to another child, asking her to self-harm and going as far as suggesting she kill herself. She said that police arrived at her door and informed her that her 14-year-old daughter "had sent a very terrible message to someone who was a friend".
The woman said she couldn’t believe her daughter would do such a thing. “I don’t believe she gave any thought to the possibility of that girl taking her life because of that message. I do believe that because her friends were there, she had power – [that] she had support to do this terrible thing she might not have done on her own.”
Without trying to absolve her daughter in any way, she said that it was important for children and parents to become aware of the seriousness of cyberbullying. "You don't know what they're looking at on the phone," she said. "You have no idea. You try to give them an element of trust, but that can only go so far, and they are not fully developed human beings. This cyber stuff is encouraging them to be negative, to show blatant and absolute harassment to other weak individuals. This is not the way to go. Where will it end?"
The link between self-harm and social media
This issue of self-harm with youngsters is one close to the heart of Dr Walid Abdul-Hamid, clinical director of the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai. When he was practising in the UK, he helped treat an increasing number of young people who had begun to harm themselves, and many of the cases involved being bullied online. He says that the UAE is not immune to this, even with this country's tough cyber and defamation laws, children are still being victimised in the digital landscape. He says he's keen to raise awareness of the link between self-harm and social media.
"We adults don't get to hear about it a lot of the time," he says. "Youngsters tend to be very secretive in their online activities and others cannot witness what's going on. Parents in the UAE lead such busy and stressful lives that they often miss the signs that their children are being bullied, even when they self-harm or develop eating disorders." He says problems are exacerbated by the natural tendency of young people to "catastrophise", always thinking that the very worst will happen. "We're talking about children who are inexperienced and very sensitive to issues that might just bounce off adults."
What causes someone to become a bully?
What, though, causes a youngster to become a bully in the first place? Abdul-Hamid says they have often been the victims of abuse themselves. “It’s a form of retaliation for their own suffering – the victim becomes the perpetrator. They may have been pushed to the point that they feel suicidal, and one way to make themselves feel better is to make others feel worse.”
It’s a terribly sad state of affairs, but we can take heart in the fact that the issue is getting some proper attention on the world stage. During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, his wife Melania publicly promised that, if she became first lady of the United States, she would tackle cyberbullying as a priority. It took many months in her new role to finally address the issue, but in September last year she addressed a group during the US Mission to the United Nations and pointed out the gravity of the subject.
It’s important to put politics aside and pay attention to what is being said here, rather than who said it: “It remains our generation’s moral imperative to take responsibility for what our children learn. We must turn our focus right now to the message and content they are exposed to on a daily basis through social media, the bullying, the experience online and in person and the growing global epidemic of drug addiction and drug overdose.
“No children should ever feel hungry, stalked, frightened, terrorised, bullied, isolated or afraid with nowhere to turn. We need to step up, come together and ensure that our children’s future is bright.”
While Trump didn’t mention what she proposed to do about it, she’s right – we do need to step up and come together. Bullying of any kind is inexcusable and has to stop. Full stop.