Is enough being done to tackle cyber bullying ? In the wake of various high profile cases, including that of Caroline Flack, the answer is generally “no”. Social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Instragram and others need to be held accountable (in my view) over the content of posts. This also extends to the press - the so called “free speech” movement (in my view) has gone too far. How many other pointless deaths are required before we as a human race react, and stamp this out once and for all ?
When I was at school, bullying was rife, and the institute I attended never had a great reputation as one that dealt with bullying immediately either. Most of those affected never reported the issue for fear of reprisal. During my school years, bullying was limited to teaching hours, with the peak times being breaks, lunch, and when you were leaving the school premises. The internet as we know it today never even existed, and mobile phones were not the accessible medium like they are today. Over the years, the onset of technology and the Smartphone have made it possible for bullying to reach a level previously unobtainable in years gone by. This new platform has paved the way for the next generation – cyber bullying.
What is Cyber Bullying ?
Cyber bullying is any form of bullying which takes place online or through smartphones and tablets, and with the added reach of technology, campaigns are much more aggressive, and now extend to beyond the school gates into personal lives. Whilst with “analogue bullying” there was an escape at evenings, weekends, and holidays, the digital aspect of “always on” technology allows for campaigns to be persistent in their nature, and often attracting input from multiple other sources along the way. Bullying never was a one to one exercise – it usually always involved groups of individuals attacking and harassing one other. However, it should be noted at this point that whilst bullying is typically associated with schools, it certainly is not limited to this – it can be found in colleges, the workplace, clubs, and just about anywhere you can think of.
As well as social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (amongst several others), bullying can also take place on other platforms such as email, SMS, and instant messenger. In simpler times, bullies could write something about you on a wall somewhere, and those who saw it usually found amusement at someone else’s expense. However, the exposure was limited, and unless everyone in your school, college, or workplace read the same message, the damage potential was not very high. In days “gone by”, bullying was limited to physical threats, intimidation, etc, but with the onset of the digital world, bullying has become a 24×7 phenomenon that allows the recipient of such vile campaigns to be targeted and attacked outside of institutions - essentially, following them everywhere. It also allows the perpetrator to extend their reach well beyond previous physical boundaries.
A new breed of bullying
Gone are the days of physical threats and violence in person. The digital age allows for the cyber bully to be completely anonymous, and without a face. Unfortunately, the recipient of such campaigns are never faceless, and must bear the consequences – often without guidance or assistance. What starts off as a joke, if not reigned in promptly, can rapidly exacerbate into a situation where the original concept and argument is lost along the way, and replaced with something of a malicious nature. The intensity of such campaigns can leave a potential target feeling a mixture of emotions – such as anger, low self esteem, depression, and in some cases, suicidal tendencies.
In order to understand exactly why bullying campaigns are able to inflict so much emotional damage on another individual, we first need to gain a perspective of how they are able to succeed in the first place. Firstly, let’s look at the transport. The digital age allows for messages to be sent at an alarming pace – instantly, and it’s all too easy to send a message without considering how it will be perceived at the other end. Of course, it’s possible to delete certain content of a message chain, but if the intended recipient has already received, read, and processed that message, attempting to retract it afterwards is far too late. With today’s technology, obtaining information about another individual is a relatively simple task and with the rise of social media, this is a large loophole that needs to be closed in order to form any type of deterrent.
Social media, email, and instant messenger allows adolescents, teenagers, and adults to interact with peers regardless of proximity, and it is this very aspect that allows it to be leveraged for purposes outside of what it was originally designed for. Younger users of Facebook and Twitter for example are not aware of the security controls that are in place, and if the default settings are left unchanged, or relaxed, then that user can be exposed to exploitation in various forms. Examples of this include (but not limited to) private messages, negative comments, derogatory and / or inflammatory remarks or statements, and spreading gossip or lies that have no foundation. Most bullying campaigns are generated by the
- vulnerability of the intended target
- access or platform in order for the campaign to spread and remain functional.
For the vulnerability component, most of the required information needed to make a significant dent in self confidence and esteem can be found in other areas of social media – friends of the target.
Using bullying to poison others
Bullying can be very powerful when used to it’s highest potential. An example of this is finding a weakness in someone else, and using this as a mechanism of extracting information concerning the original target. This technique is often referred to as “outing” or “trickery”. In this instance, the cyber bully lights the flame, and the individual being tricked into revealing information provides the fuel. The end result is not pretty either – the information extracted is often altered dependant on the campaign being serviced, and then shared with others. This creates a ripple effect – the originator is then able to be “hands off” whilst the altered content is shared multiple times by the initial audience. As each recipient adds their own comments and starts to “tag” the intended target, the campaign intensifies. As others see the content and begin jumping onto the digital bandwagon, the initial flame becomes a raging forest fire.
The problem with all fires is that if they are left to burn out of control for too long, they are difficult to extinguish. A bullying campaign can be thought of in exactly the same way. As a fire usually always does permanent damage, so does a bullying campaign – often with fatal consequences.
How do you stop an active campaign ?
There is no silver bullet answer to this, as you first need to find the source. Given the outcome of the above, this can be a very difficult exercise, and coupled with the anonymity that the internet and social media provides, exposing these individuals can be extremely difficult. Usually, the victim of such abuse will have a very good idea of the bullying origins, and may be able to offer insight. The fastest method is to report the post to the platform provider, such as Facebook or Twitter. By placing enough pressure on the platform and involving the police as soon as is feasible, the active campaign can be extinguished, and those responsible exposed and bought to justice quickly and effectively.
What should I do to protect my child ?
It’s not just children that are the targets of bullying campaigns, although active research has indicated that this is where a bulk of the activity takes place. As a parent, I am lucky enough to not have had to deal with cyber bullying and it’s consequences, although I am very mindful of the damage it can cause – both from an emotional and physical aspect. Those who are the targets of bullying campaigns are often left with long term psychological effects and emotional scarring that never heals – even after the initial fire has burned itself out. Below, I’ve compiled a list of advice, and actions you can take to make your child’s online experience as safe as possible.
- Look for changes in your child’s behaviour – for example, mood swings, sadness, lack of enthusiasm or interest, or a refusal to go to school
- Monitor your child’s activity online – particularly social media accounts. If anything is posted that does not seem right, the chances are that it isn’t. Take immediate action against such activity, and stamp out the fire before it rages uncontrollably.
- Actively review text messages on your child’s phone. Detecting malicious content early is key – should you find anything that you consider undesirable, ask your child about this – silence is not the best course of action, as it only makes the situation worse if left alone.
- Regularly review images stored on your child’s phone. If you find any that are of an undesirable nature, speak to your child and try to gain an understanding of the events that lead to the image being taken. Ask your child if the image has been shared elsewhere, and if this is the case, work with them to remove it as soon as possible. In some cases, images shared elsewhere will fall outside of the control of the social media platform – for example, emails, and MMS messages. These are extremely difficult to eradicate, and may require assistance from the police.
- If you suspect that your child is involved in any form of cyber bullying – as a participant or recipient, remember that they are classed as a minor, and you are still responsible for their actions. Cyber bullying can be classed as a criminal offence (see case circumstances), and you as the parent could also be responsible for any legal outcome if your child is actively involved in any campaign from a participant perspective. Dealing with a perpetrator can be just as challenging as dealing with a victim.
- Schools often adopt a zero tolerance to bullying in any form. Speak to your local school concerning this as soon as is feasible to allow them to take action.
There are a number of sites that do a much better job of outlining even more steps you can take – have a look at
This is a topic that I am very interested in - I’m an advocate of eliminating this vile activity once and for all.