The digital age has ushered in a new era of instant communication, data storage and retrieval, and shared information. It has made the world a smaller place by allowing global communication and aiding international commerce. But by the same token, it has opened up a Pandora’s box of cyber crime, Internet fraud, and adult cyber bullying.
What Is Cyber Bullying?
“Cyber bullying is bullying through email, instant messaging (IMing), chat room exchanges, Web site posts, or digital messages or images send to a cellular phone or personal digital assistant (PDA)” – Kowalski.
Sometimes it involves high school kids teasing and bullying each other on Facebook. At other times it entails adults persecuting one another over political, religious, or other deeply held beliefs. It can take on a sadistic quality, in which the bully, not satisfied with merely humiliating his victim, seeks to torment his quarry to the point of self-destruction.
“Cyber bullying, like traditional bullying, involves an imbalance of power, aggression, and a negative action that is often repeated,”– Violence Prevention Works.
Cyber bullying in its simplest form takes place between two people through email, instant messaging, or phone texting. To be fully satisfying to the genuine bully there has to be an audience, and because of this the bully often takes their activity to social media, Internet forums or comments sections. In these places the humiliation is public and therefore twice as shaming. It also allows the bully to perform at his sadistic best (or worst) before like-minded aggressors.
- Harassment: For example repeatedly sending offensive, rude, and insulting messages.
- Denigration: For example posting derogatory information about someone, and/or digitally altered photos.
- Flaming: Fighting online, often using vulgar language.
- Impersonation: For example hacking another’s email or social media to post embarrassing material.
- Outing and Trickery: For example sharing another’s secrets or tricking someone into revealing embarrassing information.
- Cyber Stalking: Repeated threats or online activity that makes a person afraid for his/her safety.
Characteristics of the Cyber Bully
According to Violence Prevention, there are a number of common characteristics are identified in cyber bullies:
- Anonymity: These bullies often cruise the Internet under pseudonyms, often the victim often does not know who is doing the bullying.
- Accessibility: The cyber bully can approach his victim at any time over the Internet. Since the contact is not physical or face-to-face there is no specific time during which the bully has access.
- Punitive Fears: Victims often fear retaliation from their tormentors. If the victim is a child, the fear of losing access to a computer or other technology may prevent them from seeking help or reporting the behaviour.
- Disinhibition: The anonymity of the Internet can encourage an individual to commit acts they might not otherwise attempt in person. It affords false courage when the bully thinks he can’t be identified.
Cyber bullying can have disastrous consequences for young children, teens, and adults who are not familiar with the tactics of cyber bullies. Adult cyber bullying is often not as humiliating as it is for children. Kids may feel they can’t face their peers when they have been on the losing end of cyber bullying. There have been numerous reports of children and teens committing suicide over the tactics of cyber bullies; they just aren’t emotionally equipped to handle the social degradation.
There are a number of signs to look for if a parent or guardian suspects cyber bullying. Sadness, moodiness and anxiety are all possible signs that a child has been bullied online. Avoidance of school or social activities, as well as a drop in academic performance, can also signal the problem. And if a child appears unduly upset after a session on the computer or receiving a phone text, there may be a reason to investigate the situation. But the issue with adult cyber bullying is that adults have no one to turn to. So getting ambushed online, especially at difficult times of their life, may completely devastate their self-worth and confidence.
Adult cyber bullying often takes the form of “trolling.” The word comes from a reference to the method of catching fish by casting a baited line in the water and waiting for a fish to bite. In the same sense, the Internet troll tries to catch an unsuspecting victim to demean and humiliate. Trolls are an annoying problem for those who use the Internet regularly. They are present on social media and in the comments sections of various websites, articles, blogs, and other online forums.
“In the late 1980s, Internet users adopted the word ‘troll’ to denote someone who intentionally disrupts online communities.” – Schwartz
Frequently, the technique employed is to ask stupid questions and lull the unsuspecting victim into a false sense of security and superiority. Then the troll pounces with a constant barrage of insults meant to overwhelm and intimidate. The troll considers this a contest in which he must best his opponent, a sort of cyber-joust.
Trolls even have a system of tallying their conquests called lulz:
“A corruption of ‘LOL’ or ‘laugh out loud,’ ‘lulz’ means the joy of disrupting another’s emotional equilibrium” – Schwartz
Some trolls in the cyber world have formed factions that hunt down their prey and relentlessly degrade them.
“Technology, apparently, does more than harness the wisdom of the crowd. It can intensify its hatred as well” – Schwartz
This type of trolling, it seems, can act as a sort of cyber lynch mob, sometimes with devastating results. This relentless pursuit for pleasure has genuinely disturbing implications.
Many trolls are not content with merely persecuting their victims online. Sometimes their persecution spills over to the friends and family of their original prey. Following the 2006 suicide of Mitchell Henderson, a seventh grader from Rochester, Minnesota, persistent trolls didn’t consider their childish online jokes about the dead boy to be satisfying enough. The harassment progressed to attacks against the boy’s parents. Prank phone calls were made to the Hendersons. Mitchell’s father stated that it sounded like kids:
“They’d say, ‘Hi, this is Mitchell, I’m at the cemetery.’ … ‘Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?’” – Schwartz
Hard-core trolls consider this type of provocation hilarious, a true indication of the juvenile mentality and mind-set of the dedicated troll. To families such as the Hendersons who have experienced a loss, this behaviour is devastating.
A new study seeks to classify the personalities of those who engage in trolling and to dissect this predatory behaviour. The report by Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba and two of her colleagues investigated the behaviour patterns of people who enjoyed online trolling and investigated whether they possessed personality traits such as being manipulative, deceitful, narcissistic, having a lack of remorse, and/or a willingness to inflict pain on others.
This type of behaviour has disturbing implications. The individual who gets pleasure from hunting fellow humans for this sort of degrading sport shows serious signs of predatory and destructive tendencies. In fact, the practice of trolling has become so blatant that several websites have taken action to prevent it.
“Last year Popular Science did away with its comments sections completely, citing research on the deleterious effects of trolling, and YouTube also took measures to rein in trolling.” – Mooney
Information, Prevention, and Reporting
There are a number of places to obtain information on cyber bullying:
- The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children maintains a “Netsmartz” program for finding information and solutions to cyber bullying. There are several other helpful websites that offer information and assistance for parents of bullied children, as well as for adults seeking legal redress for cyber bullying.
- Violence Prevention Works is a website that is administered in conjunction with the Hazelden Foundation. It presents information and tips for parents of bullied children, and discussion regarding the legal issues involved in cyber bullying.
- A Department of Education site offers directions on how to recognize, prevent, and report cyber bullying.
There are several important steps to take when there is evidence of cyber bullying. It is critical to keep a record of the incidents and to save any texts or photos associated with it. It is also important to report the incident to the online service provider for the site on which the event occurred. Victims can also block the person who is harassing them. If the bullying seems to cross the line from harassment to criminal intent, then it is time to contact law enforcement. If violence is threatened or any sexually explicit material is received, or when there is stalking or an invasion of an individual’s privacy, then the cyber bully has committed a crime and it should be investigated by the proper authorities, according to the website stopbullying.gov.
It’s always important to know your rights and educate your children about them. No one has to be the victim of a cyber bully, and no one should have the right to infringe upon the security and well-being of any citizen with impunity. Being informed and knowing how to fight back is the only answer to eliminating this online threat.
- Kowalski, Robin, Limber, Susan, and Agatson, Patricia, Cyberbullying: Bullying in the Digital Age, 2d ed., Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2012
- Mooney, Chris, “New Study: Internet Trolls Are Often Machiavellian Sadists,” Feb. 14, 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2014/02/internet-trolls-sadists-psychopaths-lulz
- Schwartz, Mattathias, “The Trolls Among Us,” The New York Times, Aug. 3, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/magazine/03trolls-t.html?_r=0
- gov, “Cyberbullying,” http://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/index.html
- Violence Prevention Works, “What is Cyberbullying?”, 2014 Hazelden Foundation, http://www.violencepreventionworks.org/public/cyber_bullying.page