by Megan Ryland
[Image: A white hand reaches out of a blank computer monitor towards the viewer. The monitor is superimposed on a bright background with binary code, lens flares and motherboards.]
[Content warning: bullying, misogyny, suicide, child abuse]
The Internet can get a little too real at times and maybe we would like to step away, but it can be surprisingly difficult to extract ourselves even - or especially - when things go sideways. 80% of North Americans have Internet in their homes and 56% of Americans have smartphones so the Internet isn’t ever far away. I remember talking to a classmate who complained about wrist cramps because she kept falling asleep holding her cell phone and it stayed locked in her grip all night. These devices can be life lines to close friends or the wider public space, but they can also become a constant presence that is hard to tear ourselves away from. I’m such a compulsive email-checker that I was hesitant to get mobile data for Internet use on my phone because of how constantly I thought I’d use it! Making this technology a legitimate part of my life means that the Internet is a space that I can’t abandon with ease. In some ways, escaping the Internet would be the same as if I just stopped hanging out with my friends at school or attending meetings at work. This constant, lived connection can present a serious challenge when virtual space becomes dangerous.
Earlier in the week, I talked about the Internet as a safe(r) space, but it isn’t enough for me to highlight only the benefits of having a new public place. I think it is also important to spend time acknowledging that we can make these spaces uniquely dangerous, particularly when we mislead someone to believe they have entered a safe space to express themselves. I’ve already addressed online harassment more generally, but I think cyberbullying has slightly different traits to examine, although there is obviously overlap and one person can practice both. However, these are personal definitions, rather than general or legal ones, so your mileage may vary.
I see online harassment as something done in a public way, often by strangers, and it is more likely a performance for an audience. For example, Anita Sarkeesian describes how her harassers coordinated with one another and created publically viewable, hateful images of her. Harassment may take place first in public comment forums like websites or Twitter, although it can quickly stray into one-on-one virtual and physical spaces, especially if harassers engage in the ever-popular release of private information.
In contrast, I think of cyberbullying as a more intimate or personal act that is often preceded by developing a relationship, maybe as a friend, ally, classmate or coworker. This strategy offers the ‘side benefit’ of getting the abuser close to their target for more accurately placed poison arrows. It is often more “up close and personal.” A cyberbully may extend into public forums and even recruit harassers and other bullies, but there is still the sense of someone shoving you in a locker. They want to personally contain and control you, so they don’t want you to necessarily shut up and go away (as many harassers did with Anita); they may actually want to stick around and keep in touch constantly. Approximately 1 in 3 teenagers online are experiencing cyberbullying, but few will share this with parents and even fewer will report it to the police.
The constant virtual presence of the bully is a new aspect of cyberbullying compared to physically present bullies, and this can add a whole new layer of misery to the situation. Instead of simply replaying someone’s cruel words in your own head, someone might actually just keep sending you the same message via email or text or YouTube over and over. You can be inundated with toxic messages very easily and if the online world was previously your ‘safe space’ then it is difficult to avoid a hailstorm of hate; you don’t want to be bullied and exiled from the Internet.
Another change is the ease of documenting private conversations and photos (like personal confessions or explicit photos) as evidence to hold against someone, and the accompanying exploitation of trust when these private conversations are used against someone. Blackmail has been around for generations, but the Internet is giving us new ways to treat each other poorly. The cyberbullying that results from using someone’s vulnerable moments against them is a new take on an old pastime.
The impact of this new aspect has been felt unevenly. Although all genders engage in sexting, the punishment for the discovery of some people’s explicit photos has received much more negative attention than others. I have yet to see a news story about a straight boy’s inappropriate “dick pics” that isn’t complicated by other factors (infidelity, high profile, age difference) but I have heard a number of tragic stories about women, trans* people, and queer folks whose photos or online conversation have been used against them. These photos don’t need to be extremely explicit or belong to celebrities to make the news; it is enough to be caught in the act of expressing sexuality or a ‘deviant’ identity.
The first example that jumps to mind is Amanda Todd. Amanda was a Canadian teenager who documented the story of her online harassment, bullying, stalking, exploitation and blackmail over many years in a YouTube video in 2012. After explicit photos were obtained by a man who wanted to exploit her, Amanda Todd seemed trapped by the worst aspects of the Internet:
1. Once something is online, it is permanent and public. It is almost impossible to get something back.
2. People are able to access you 24/7 and there are few steps you can take to escape them (or their comments), sometimes even if you retreat from online space
Amanda Todd shared a semi-nude photo in 7th grade and she continued to receive on- and offline abuse as a result even three years later; the single event snowballed far bigger and faster than I think most people could have guessed. Many people have shared explicit photos in all sorts of ways (4% of teens will admit to sexting) without this kind of outcome, and they’ll continue to do so, but the risks are real for those who find themselves in a digital nightmare. Unfortunately, Amanda Todd committed suicide in 2012 after events felt too overwhelming to be overcome. Her story is told elsewhere online (by herself and by others) and, in my opinion, it is difficult to hear what happened to her, so I encourage you to seek out details on your own. However, I think remembering Amanda Todd also requires remembering the high stakes of Internet abuse. How real and intense what we call cyberbullying is. Amanda’s story received a great deal of attention (although not in time to intervene), but she is just one example of the many people who have found virtual space to be a danger to their physical and mental health.
The consequences of an electronic misstep or moment of vulnerability are unequal and they stick around. Addressing this problem is difficult, however. Youth anti-cyberbullying campaigns are stuck in a tough spot, because we haven’t cracked the code of how to stop bullies and we simply cannot control the flow of information on the Internet, but something clearly has to be done to limit the impact of cyberbullying. A lot of bullying and cyberbullying advice gives me heartburn because it has a victim blaming slant in its constant advice to control the target of abuse, rather than the abuser. This list from Cyberbullying.us includes practical tips like keeping your password to yourself and setting tight privacy controls on websites, but isn’t enough to just “protect yourself.” It isn’t fair to ask youth or adults to distrust every online interaction and act as if people are constantly trying to exploit you. We shouldn’t set up a system where living in fear is the only ‘safe’ strategy. This is especially true when that system is rigged to allot safety unequally, even if participants are engaging in the same behaviour.
Teaching youth and adults to take all kinds of bullying seriously and find it unacceptable seems like the most comprehensive strategy available right now. In fact, sometimes I wonder about ‘reclaiming’ the term bully as a more negative label; it would be a sort of reverse strategy from the positive reclamation of words like “queer.” We are potentially dismissive of bullies because bullying seems like a children’s activity or a phase that you grow out of (or live through), but many people can attest to the fact that young bullies in the playground may turn into older bullies too. More to the point, labelling someone as a bully doesn’t seem to hold the weight of calling someone a harasser, stalker, or abuser, although a bully may take on the habits of any of these labels. Perhaps this should change. When we’re talking about bullying, the social taboo needs to be stronger. If we address bullying online (and off) with the level of intensity that we devote to other negative social practices, I think we could re-calibrate the measurement for what is unacceptable behaviour. This perspective can support work to step in when you see bullying, to change norms, to teach kids, to build anti-bullying programs, to develop awareness campaigns, and to create laws and procedures for dealing with bullies. The message is simple: Bullying is not acceptable and it needn’t just be endured.
Essentially, by being clear about what bullying is, does and who can do it, we could answer cyberbullying with more than just “Oh, ignore them” or “Just step away from your computer!” Part of this strategy acknowledges that asking people to “suck it up” or leave public spaces is not enough and doesn’t take seriously a) the impact of bullying on its targets and b) the importance of the Internet as a public space. We’d never tell someone to stop going to class because there’s a bully. It’s a silly suggestion. Cyberbullying is real and it can make online spaces toxic, but the solution isn’t to log off and withdraw. As potential participants and bystanders, it is part of our responsibility as virtual citizens to create communities where cyberbullying is not welcome or tolerated. There’s no room for bullies on my Internet.