The act of “cyberbullying” holds a strange paradox for me; it is an act that can be devoid of any direct social connection and yet, because of the technology and social media sites it uses, it can be hyper-social. For an adolescent, this can be particularly damaging since it can permeate and distort every aspect of a teenager’s social life, at a stage in life when peer relationships are so vitally important.
As I wrote in my last blog, aggression was, until fairly recently, the domain of the male and “bullying” was synonymous with a young male who was physically aggressive. The word “bully” is usually associated with male actions, not female ones.Social or relational aggression — ignoring, teasing, gossiping, excluding, secrets, backstabbing, and rumor spreading — now associated with the female, stayed under the radar of study, with the aggressive behavior often wrapped in a package seen as harmless, or just a “girl thing”. What was most damaging was turning the victim into a social “undesirable” and that the covert nature of the aggression left the victim with no forum to refute the accusations.
“Cyberbullying” takes the covert and hidden even further, allowing the perpetrator a greater opportunity to remain anonymous, leaving the victim even less of a chance to refute or avoid the damage of the accusations. The term has generally been defined as using the power of the Internet – emails, chat rooms, instant messaging and social networking sites, as well as cell phones — to send or post text or images meant to hurt, embarrass and humiliate another person.It can include threats, harassment, stalking, impersonation, trickery and exclusion. Both perpetrators and victims can be male or female and are usually older adolescents. In an interesting twist, when adults perpetrate similar aggressive behavior using the Internet, it is generally called cyberstalking.
When bullying was limited to physical or social aggression between perpetrator and victim, there usually was some direct contact between them, although it was limited to shared meeting places, like school or clubs. A safe haven would be any place that would offer an environment free of one’s peers, i.e. home. The special aspect of “cyberbullying” that is particularly damaging for a young person is the void of a safe haven away from it; for as long as a young person has a cell phone and Internet access, the borderless nature of cyber communications permeates all spaces he or she exists within, with the negative messages continuing to bombard the psyche.
All these aspects combine to create a situation for the young person that is physically, emotionally and socially damaging. If the victim attempts to fight back, the perpetrator increases the “I’m going to get you” attacks, forcing a state of resignation. The bullying also has a reputational effect so that the stigmatization endures even after the actual bullying has stopped. The distortions and lies that get bonded to one’s reputation become internalized, leading to feelings of hopelessness and despair. It is these feelings that can lead a young victim to decide that life is not worth living.
It may be time to change how we refer to what is now called “cyberbullying” — aggression via the internet — to capture more effectively its lasting damage. Included in its meaning must be the power of the aggressive content (what the words say, or the image depicts) further enhanced by the power of the various media available to conveying the content – the Internet, email, cell phones, Facebook, and Twitter – all of which then alters the actual destructive psychological and social experiencing of being bullied to one of being stalked.