OPINION: Dichotomizing cyber bullying and its consequences

Written by Dr Mariam

Opinion

Technology has its advantages but also there are numerous problems it has brought us one of which this piece will concentrate on. This write up is informed by encounters colleagues and myself have gone through in the past, recently in one of our professional groups and also the increased number of people recently targeted on social media platforms in The Gambia by cyberbullies. Since we are in the age of technology and most people are well connected no matter where in the world one happens to find themselves it is very easy for positive and negative communication to occur and spread very fast. On one side, the Internet has made the world much smaller with numerous opportunities to thrive and for people with even little resources to be able to connect and share their thoughts and opinions geared towards raising awareness on important issues affecting our daily survival. On the other side, it has exposed vulnerable people to the ugly world of cyberbullying while sitting safely in the vicinity of one’s homes.  

Most of the commonly-accepted definitions of bullying include an element of intent. Scandinavian researcher Dan Olweus, who is arguably most responsible for the current academic interest in the topic, defines bullying as “aggressive behaviour that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power. Most often, it is repeated over time.” The National Center on Bullying (NCAD) defines it as “an ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm”. It can involve an individual or a group misusing their power, or perceived power, over one or more persons who feel unable to stop it from happening. 

Technically speaking the definition of cyberbullying is similar, except for the fact that the bully attacks their victim using a digital device such as a phone, tablet, or computer to post threatening or embarrassing content or make direct attacks. According to the executive director of Wiredsafety Parry Aftab “Cyberbullying is “any cyber-communication or publication posted or sent by a minor online, by instant message, e-mail, website, diary site, online profile, interactive game, handheld device, cellphone, game device, digital camera or video, webcam or use of any interactive digital device that is intended to frighten, embarrass, harass, hurt, set up, cause harm to, extort, or otherwise target another minor”. She further classified bullies into four different categories.  

 Vengeful Angel - Vengeful Angels aim to protect themselves or others from cyberbullies by righting wrongs with more bullying. They don't really think of themselves as cyberbullies (but they really are).

 Power-Hungry - Power-Hungry cyberbullies seek to manipulate others with fear. They want attention and to see their targets react with fear. Some students who were once victims of traditional bullying find themselves as aggressors online because social media has levelled the playing field. The approach involves social-exclusion of targets to demonstrate the social clout of the instigator.

Mean Girls- Although Mean Girls cyberbullies rarely threaten victims, they engage others to pass along messages filled with rumours, vote at cyber bashing sites, or other tactics to help spread humiliation.

 Accidental Cyberbully – is when a person hurts another through words or actions without the instigator’s knowledge. 

When it comes to cyberbullying instigators can sometimes easily hide their identities. The anonymity can make these types of bullies feel particularly powerful to cover their own weaknesses. However, one important distinction that is important when discussing cyberbullying that needs to be differentiated from normal bullying is the fact that perception of being cyberbullied is based on the recipient’s perception and, not the intent of the sender. This means that it is very possible that someone could send or post something without malicious intent that gets interpreted negatively. In other words, an individual can easily become an unintentional cyberbully- the crux of this piece. 

Cyberbullying although commoner in young people especially during the teen years when egos are fragile leading to vulnerabilities in self-esteem and confidence, it is also encountered by adults.   

In the teenage years as the brain is growing and the mind is expanding it is during these periods in the development phase when he or she begins to become aware of the world and the ability to use abstract thinking develops leading to better perception. The egocentric nature of teenagers, which is related to brain development, makes them be very sensitive individuals. Their egocentric nature causes them to assume that others, especially peers and friends, see a situation exactly how they do. This can have dire consequences. A joke or a sarcastic statement can therefore easily be interpreted as an insult. This is due to the fact they always want to be portrayed strong and confident. They may not relate to how such interactions really hurt them. The result may be that they feel bullied and attacked by a friend or peer who has no intention of hurting them. Regardless of the intent, however, these communications can take a large toll on the recipient and will take us to my encounters with bullies in primary school. 

Bullying is spiteful and have been reported in the scientific literature to have negative consequences that can result in mental distress like depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, self-harm and even suicide. Bullying can have long term effects on an individual and can lead to many unfavorable circumstances and can go a long way in shaping individuals in the future. My encounter with bullies during my primary school days at Bakau Newtown primary school as an overweight child from “Friends” and teachers still continues to have an impact on the person I am today. I have had ugly encounters with people whom I believed should have protected me but never did. I was constantly called names and mocked at which made me to become the avoidance type of person. I was not able to join them during physical educational (PE) activities because I was always afraid of being called “Jaguar” “hippopotamus’ “amongst others. I could not get help then because the best way for me to deal with it was avoiding situations that will make them have an opportunity to hurt me. Some of the mates who have called me names and bullied me have most probably forgotten but I do remember their words and the impact it has on me until this day. Anytime I come across their profiles on social media or my mind recalls those days I cannot stop thinking about how they made me feel and continue to feel. Because of those encounters I used to find it very hard to trust people therefore making it difficult for me to easily make friends and approach people without taking time to observe and study them, as I do not want to make “Friends” who will be responsible for my pains. I rather used to prefer to be in a space where I will not have to go through what I went through as a child. With mental development, experiences and education now I have a different remedy, which is to always speak up when injustices are done and to try and find solutions to the problems of our society. In short, I am graduating from “watchful waiting” to involving more in conservative and intensive management of conditions. These my colleagues in medicine will understand better. 

 Accidental bullying rarely gets as much attention as ‘normal’ bullying because it happens so often, and the consequences seem to be much less serious. It isn’t intended to be hurtful, but are experienced as such. “Even though it wasn’t your objective, your words can be taken out of context by others when they’re read and regurgitated, amplifying your digital footprint.” This can happen offline as well, of course, but technology certainly does more easily obscure actual intent. Many of us know from experience that it often leads to more frequent misunderstandings as communication occurs without important facial expressions, vocal intonations, or other interpretive behavioral cues that provide color and context to what is conveyed. 

The concept of an accidental bully is not new. Internet lawyer Parry Aftab has included the “inadvertent cyberbully” in her taxonomy in 2006 “They do it for the fun of it. They may also do it to one of their friends, joking around. But their friend may not recognize that it is another friend or may take it seriously.”. It may also be used to establish one’s rank in a social hierarchy. 

The Accidental cyberbully is interested in online role-playing and may pretend to be tough. They may react to controversial messages or send cyberbullying communications without thinking about the consequences. The neutral nature of messages sent using electronic media makes it difficult to understand the tone of the sender – one person's joke could be another's hurtful insult. However, a repeated pattern is rarely accidental. In case of cyberbullying, this becomes relatively easy, where one can reach a large audience by a click of a mouse leading to increase humiliation and impact of bullying exponentially. In term of both means and content cyberbullying is expansive. It includes bullying through text messages, phone calls, e-mails, instant messengers, social media platforms, or in chat rooms. It varies from posting hurtful words, derogatory comments, posting fake information on public forums or blogs, hacking accounts to rape or death threats. It can be as disastrous as revenge porn which is geared towards causing distress and harm. The impact of such acts can be tragic especially for young adults, who feel so embarrassed and humiliated that they cannot imagine surviving the next morning, and end up taking extreme steps which include harm to self and occasionally, others. It deeply reflects the problems associated with connecting online as it provides space to bullies who do not only operate at the schools or street corners, it has now moved to Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, etc., where a lot of inappropriate actions take place.   

The writer, Justin Patchin, who has a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice and a B.S. in Sociology, explains his views on unintentional bullying, and how it should be dealt with. He states that first of all, the term bullying is really broad and vague. Then he goes on to bring up different situations, and considers whether it is bullying or not. He found that in the end, even if the intentions were non-malignant, it is still bullying. However, he explains that if the intentions behind the bullying were innocent, then the person responsible should be shown that they were at fault. If they persist in their actions, then further actions would be necessary. 

The reality is that in these instances, perception is truly everything. The perspective of the victim is obvious. He feels attacked or even tortured by the sarcastic, teasing comments, that feel downright cold and cruel. These communications are particularly harmful if the perpetrator is supposed to be a friend. Oddly enough from the perspective of the unintentional cyberbully, they may indeed be friends. But again, perception or rather perspective means everything. The unintentional cyberbully does not have the same perspective as his unintended victim. He thinks nothing of the comments sent or posted; they are simply a joke, no harm intended, a banter between friends. On occasion, he may actually be waiting for a sufficient sarcastic comeback! It would be much to his chagrin to learn that the recipient of his quips feels victimized. And yet in these circumstances, the alleged cyberbully is truly clueless, unaware about the impact of his actions. 

So how can we stop unintentional bullying? Awareness and empathy are important factors. Whenever we speak or stay silent, keep in mind how others feel. Behind the cover of shrugs and smiles may be hidden hurt. If we witness unintentional bullying, we should let the instigators know that their actions may have hurt others. More education and emphasis should be made available to everyone. In the end, just standing in someone’s shoes can make all the difference. 

Education always starts with awareness and understanding. The use of perspective taking is certainly crucial when addressing this dilemma. To ask bullies to ask themselves, “How would I feel if I received this text or post?” however, is not enough. The better question to ask is, “How would my friend feel if he read this?” If a positive response is at all questionable, we need to teach people that they best refrain from sending or posting. In addition, we need to teach individuals to check in with each other. If, for example, a sarcastic comment is posted to a friend, check in to acknowledge that the comment could be perceived as hurtful. Let the friend know up front the intent was never to upset or harm. This is certainly difficult one for an immature person and thus making it important to emphasize when in doubt not to post or send anything unless definitely positive. We also need to teach people to be their own advocates using respectful language and means, to communicate if they have a negative perception of a received post or text. When angry people should refrain from responding and also to involve authorities, they believe can help change the situation. It is only through direct communication with each other can we clarify how people are perceiving things. When people have concerns, no matter how foolish one might think they are empathy and compassionate should be taken to address those concerns. People should be encouraged in social media platforms to be tolerant and respectful to the opinion of others. It is important for people not directly involved in the bullying to ensure needed actions are taken to resolve matters rather than sitting on the sidelines.  

Cyberbullying is catastrophic due to fragile egos, and self-esteem and self-confidence can be vulnerable. The negative implications associated with this type of bullying cannot be underscored enough. Accidental cyberbullying needs to be taken very seriously because the content is judged by the impact it has on the recipient, not whether there was malicious intent on the part of the sender. Through discussion and consistent communication, we can combat circumstances leading to unintentional cyberbullying.  

By Dr. Mariam Jaw Mbowe

EFSTH