“Careless talk costs lives". This slogan, famously used to warn against spies during the Second World War, could today apply to the negative aspects of online discourse. Insults, gossip and slander now spread faster, travel farther and live longer than they once did, often with harmful consequences.
In 2003, Ryan Halligan got friendly – or so he thought – with a girl named Ashley. They both attended the same school, Ryan was 13 years old, had learning difficulties, and was frequently bullied. Ashley was pretty and popular. The friendship was a sham. Ashley had pretended to have a crush on Ryan just to entertain her friends. Believing that Ashley really liked him, Ryan began opening up and sharing personal information about himself. Ashley subsequently broadcast Ryan’s secrets to her online audience. Soon after his online shaming, Ryan was found hanged in the family bathroom. He had taken his own life.
Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me, is only true if we persist in the delusion that psychological pain is somehow not real. Cuts and bruises fade but psychological damage can last a lifetime, negativelyaffecting our relationships with others and how we feel about ourselves. In extreme cases the pain is unbearable and all hope is lost.
The recent #Comment_postively campaign by Abu Dhabi Media urges people to use social media responsibly. The campaign uses images of regional celebrities with bruised faces (digitally edited of course) and carries the caption: “Your words have the power to harm.” The message is simple but powerful: hurtful words are to heart, as fist is to face.
The #Comment_positively ads are part of a broader social campagin against cyberbullying being led by the Arabic language newspaper, Aletihad. This initiative is timely, with recent reports suggesting that cyberbullying is a growing concern both globally and in the UAE.
Following you home from school: A critical review and synthesis of research on cyberbullying victimization is the title of a paper published in 2010 in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. The conclusion of this extensive review was that between 20 and 40 per cent of US youth, regardless of gender, had experienced cyberbullying at least once in their lives. More concerning still, the evidence suggested that this victimisation was associated with serious psychosocial, emotional and academic problems.
We also know from decades of research in the offline world that bullying is to mental health problems what cigarette smoking is to lung cancer and heart disease. In other words, victimisation in childhood is a substantial source of risk for later life mental health problems.
Cyberbullying and lesser forms of digital discourtesy are not limited to children and adolescents. Many adults too become the victims of digitally mediated hate speech, online shaming or technologically assisted trash talk. It seems that our online world brings out the cynic, critic and demagogue in many of us. Too often we say hurtful things online, forgetting that behind the profile pic of our victim sits a real human soul – a thing far easier to damage than repair.
There is a maxim within the Islamic tradition that holds “say something good/positive or remain silent”. This is useful advice for everyone, regardless of religion. Very often the motivation for our negative comments is intolerance. When we can’t tolerate someone else’s culture or opinions, we may feel compelled to comment negatively. Tolerance is all about live and let live;:to you your way, to me mine.
Beyond tolerance, however, is appreciation. If tolerance is staying silent, then appreciation is finding something positive to say. Most people don’t want to be merely tolerated; we would prefer to be appreciated. I add my voice to Aletihad’s praiseworthy campaign against cyberbullying: #Comment_positively.
Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States
On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas