Should we blame social media for the rise in cyber-bullying?

Cyber-bullying affects us all. We all have a cyber-bullying story – whether it is as victim, perpetrator, or bystander. Like it or not, cyber-bullying affects us all.

But is social media to blame for the rise of cyber-bullying? This isn’t an easy question, and there is no clear answer.

I find myself conflicted. On the one hand, I’m not immune to the seemingly endless stories of the suffering of victims at the hands of their perpetrators’ cruelty.

I’ve read about, and been angered by, the sexual violence perpetrated against vulnerable girls and then uploaded onto social media by football players in Steubenville or the ‘Roast Busters’ here in NZ.

My heart breaks at the news of every suicide carried out by someone not coping with the vicious and relentless onslaught of cyber-bullying, whether it be those in the media spotlight such as Charlotte Dawson or teenagers like Amanda Todd and Jessica Laney.

I’m also frustrated by the frequency and severity of cases like these that reach our attention through the media, and like everyone else, look for an answer, a solution, anything that helps make sense of what is happening around us.

I am also wary of adding social media to the long list of innovations which have given rise to moral panic.

Not that long ago, rock n roll (and Elvis’s hips) was blamed for everything from riots, to communism, to sexual depravity. Hell, in the 50’s people claimed comic books like Batman and Robin promoted sodomy.

It’s easy to blame technology , but we have to look at ourselves and ask the hard questions, and the truth is that bullying, whether by taunts, fists or screen, has always existed.

We can’t escape the fact that cyber-bullying is on the rise – so how did we get here?

SETTING THE SCENE

The internet has given us seemingly inescapable interconnectivity, shattering the barriers of time and space. Through social media I can keep in touch with friends throughout the globe, follow celebrities, and stay abreast of the latest news in real-time.

This interconnectedness also means victims of cyber-bullying cannot easily escape bullying − it’s everywhere. It’s on their cellphones and social networking profiles. It’s relentless and seemingly inescapable, an uneasy cyber shadow.

In Charlotte Dawson’s case, people’s lives can be consumed by the endless barrage of sniping and negatively, some people are even addicted to this negativity and this, in turn, can have devastating consequences.

The internet is also vast. In the last 30 seconds almost 700,000 Gigabytes of data was transferred over the internet. To put it another way in the last 30 seconds there were over 1,500,000 Facebook Likes (if you’d like to waste hours you can view the internet in real-time here).

User numbers of social networking sites where bullying is common number in the millions (well a billion would be more accurate for Facebook), so policing bullying is near impossible.

It is also difficult for parents to supervise their children’s online activity in a society where 24 hour connectivity is now a given.

Do you really think that the child will still be using a social media platform once their parent has mastered it? For anyone doubting this, ask yourself how quickly did your kid move to Snapchat after you created a Facebook profile?

If you thought it couldn’t get any worse, a cyber-bully doesn’t even need to be at home or in the school grounds to carry out their attacks – they can do it through Facebook on a laptop at a Starbucks, through Twitter on their Smartphone, or anonymously through Ask.FM on a friend’s computer.

Social media is the perfect breeding ground for cyber-bullying – a situation where supervision is unrealistic and ‘switching off’ the internet is near impossible, and anonymity is easily ensured.

WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT CYBER-BULLYING: THE STATS AND FACTS

(Statistics provided by: ‘nobullying.com’, Cyberbullying Research Centeri-SAFE Foundation, & ‘bullyingstatistics.org’)

Cyber-bullying is on the rise:
  • In 2013, almost 70% of young people were affected by cyber-bullying.
  • In the UK, Childline reports that cyber-bullying concerns rose by 87% in 2013.
  • In NZ, What’s Up’s Canterbury hotline saw a 70% increase in calls where children were in ‘imminent harm’, with cyber-bullying suggested as being a key reason behind this.
Much cyber-bullying is relentless and sustained:
  • Almost 40% of young people are experiencing cyber-bullying on a ’highly frequent basis’
  • 20% of young people experience extreme cyber-bullying on a daily basis. This refers to relentless and vicious victimisation intended to cause intentional harm.
  • Around 34% of those who were bullied said their experiences lasted for over a month.
Males and Females are equally at risk:
  • New research suggests that males and females are equally at risk of cyber-bullying, though 19 year old males were the most common victims.
Facebook is the main offender:
  • Facebook is the leading social network used for cyber-bullying with Twitter, Ask.FM, and Snapchat also found to be likely sources (basically anywhere that teens are).
  • Young people are twice as likely to be cyber-bullied on Facebook than any other social network.
  • In fact, 55% of young people using Facebook reported that they have experienced cyber-bullying on the social network.
Many victims are also perpetrators:
  • Almost half of teens exposed to cyber-bullying have been both victim and perpetrator.
  • 21% of teens who have witnessed cyber-bullying admit to joining in.
  • 75% of students admit that they have visited a website bashing another student.
Victims are keeping it to themselves:
  • Less than one in five teens said their first reaction would be to tell a parent and only 1% of those surveyed said their initial response would be to inform a teacher.
  • More than half of young people say that they would NEVER confide in their parents after becoming a victim of cyber-bullying.
  • Fewer than 25% of serious cyber-bullying incidents are reported to the Police, Netsafe or other appropriate bodies.
Victims are at risk:
  • Over 11% of teens have reported that embarrassing or damaging photos have been taken of them without their knowledge or consent.
  • Of the people who reported cyber-bullying incidents, one third also reported that their bullies had issued online threats against them.
  • Bullying victims are 2 to 9 times more likely to consider committing suicide.
We are not taking action:
  • 95% of kids who witnessed bullying on social media report that others, like them, have ignored the behaviour.
  • Only one out of every six parents are even aware of the scope and intensity involved with cyber bullying.

SO SHOULD WE BLAME SOCIAL MEDIA FOR THE RISE IN CYBER-BULLYING?

These statistics paint a disturbing picture. They reveal cyber-bullying is on the rise and because of social media, it is getting more frequent, harmful, and sustained.

This has led cyber safety expert, Dr Martyn Wild, to state that cyber-bullying is likely to turn into the biggest online concern of our generation.

Statistics would suggest that the holy trinity of anonymity, boredom, and access have led to the proliferation of the victimisation of others?

Social media allows cyber-bullies to hide behind a mask of anonymity online, while the internet has also allowed bullies to perpetrate unimaginable harm against their victims without the need for physical access.

Compounding this, is a Victoria University study that found that most people behaved differently online and were more likely to lash out against others. The main reason being perpetrators couldn’t witness the hurt on their victims’ faces first hand, and thus the faceless nature of hiding behind a computer screen meant that attackers had more trouble empathising with their victims.

So that’s it then? Social media is to blame?

Mental Health Foundation NZ chief executive Judi Clements suggests not, saying that blaming social media is a bit like blaming the telephone:

We, the people, are the problem. We’re the people who say things that shouldn’t be said.

WHO ELSE COULD WE POINT THE FINGER AT − PARENTS?

Huffington Post columnist Jesse Miller thinks so, stating that:

Facebook is not in the business of raising my child, nor should you expect Facebook to raise yours. It is not the responsibility of Twitter to make sure my child behaves well online − it is MY responsibility.

It is his view that a lack of adult supervision, respect for others, and accountability have led to the perpetual rise in cyber-bullying that is all too often blamed on social media.

The stats also back this up. According to the ‘Teen Online & Wireless Safety Survey’, 80% of young people agree that it is not only easier to ‘get away’ with bullying people online than in person, but it is also easier to hide from their parents.

Goodtherapy.org also suggests  children under less adult supervision are far more likely to partake in cyber-bullying, as are kids living in hostile households, or those exposed to drugs and alcohol at an early age. For these children cyber-bullying is a readily available method to help them cope with their situations. It makes them feel like they’re in control, like they have power.

But should blame rest solely with parents? While ultimately responsible for their child, many will concede that their child’s web-literacy often surpasses their own. This makes it hard for them to monitor or respond to, or even know about, cyber-bullying.

SO, COULD THE MEDIA BE AT FAULT THEN?

We live in a society where ‘victim shaming’ is common and often perpetrated by the media.

After the Roast Busters scandal, we saw RadioLive hosts Willie Jackson and John Tamihere blaming the victims for drinking (“Girls shouldn’t be drinking anyway, should they?” this is the equivalent of saying that “she was asking for it”), questioning their motives (suggesting that girls might now ‘line up’ to say they were raped), all the while dismissing the actions of the rapists as those of “mischievous” cheeky lads.

Is it any wonder victims of bullying feel alone and do not seek help? Is it any wonder that the rise in cyber-bullying has been met by a revival of a “misogynistic sexual culture” which degrades women − a phenomenon exacerbated by other forms of media (videogames, music, and film are all guilty).

We live in a society where 28% of cyber-bullies victimised people out of boredom or for ‘fun and entertainment’, and we live in a society where cruelty is not limited to Facebook.

Reality Television often glorifies violence, abuse, and the mistreatment of others. Perpetrators of bullying, like Simon Cowell, are often lauded for their quick wit and sharp tongues, while any number of ‘Real Housewives’ will fight relentlessly with each other. Kids are exposed to bullying everywhere they look, and see it rewarded. No wonder they are likely to partake in it online.

MAYBE THE PROBLEM IS BEING MISREPRESENTED?

Social media apologists such as Danah Boyd will have you believe that rather than perpetuating bullying, social media is simply making it more transparent than ever.

Boyd goes as far to suggest that the recent surge in bullying is a result of our heightened perception of it rather than an increase in the actual number of acts, which she contends, have always existed in abundance:

The cultural logic underpinning bullying is far more complex than most adults realize and technology is not radically changing what is happening; it’s simply making what’s happening far more visible.

In fairness, I have never been more inundated with stories about bullying than I have recently, and anti-bullying campaigns seem spread just as quickly.

So maybe there is some truth to this. Maybe the increase in cyber-bullying is a result of availability bias and an abundance of stories (a phenomenon which explains why people are more afraid of sharks than hippos) rather than as a result of the technological means through which it is carried out.

OR MAYBE CYBER-BULLYING IS JUST A NEW NAME FOR AN EXISTING PROBLEM?

The argument could certainly be made that kids today are just doing what they have always done and social media is just the latest tool through which to do it. In fact, it joins a long list that includes: e-mails, texts, handwritten notes, whispers, and physical violence.

Sure, social media has arguably made bullying worse, but it certainly didn’t create the problem.

In fact, to insist that social media itself, rather than the vicious bullying that it is used for, is responsible for the numerous horror stories that we read about lets us conveniently sidestep the underlying social and psychological roots of the problem.

As David Rutherford, the Chief Human Rights Commissioner said:

Bullying isn’t new, it didn’t arrive with cellphones and the internet … Bullying in schools isn’t just ‘kids being kids’. If someone is attacked they shouldn’t have to ‘suck it up’.

SO SOCIETY COULD ALSO BE AT FAULT?

We live in a society where socialised aggression exists, causes serious harm, and has been practiced by our kids for as long as anyone can remember.

At the end of the day, bullying hurts, and it’s always been devastating whether delivered at the end of a punch or a keyboard.

It can be argued that we also have to contend with society that exhibits a lack of respect for others, and a situation where most of us are content with being a bystander rather than standing up and speaking out against bullying.

This is the real root of the problem, and unless we as a society recognise cyber-bullying for what it is, thousands of victims will continue to suffer in silence.

The sooner society comes to grips with this and recognises that cyber-bullying is not a new phenomenon, but rather a new iteration of a problem that has plagued us for years; the sooner we can work to combat it.

SO IN SUMMARY – YES OR NO?

Social media has certainly had an effect on the rise of cyber-bullying. It provides the anonymity, detachment, pervasiveness necessary to nurture cyber-bullying. It can also be argued that social media amplifies human nature and behaviour – the bad is worse, the hateful more heinous.

Even though the actions of cyber-bullies are hidden behind a screen, it doesn’t make them less hateful or hurtful – written words have power and their impact on the victims is devastating.

However, before we go rushing to attack technology or get our kids offline we need to realise that there are a number of other reasons that could explain the rise in cyber-bullying.

I’m reminded of a quote from Theodore Roosevelt:

Knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much unless you do what’s right.

As a society, we have a responsibility to stand up against bullying when we see it, stand with the victims and support them as best we can, and educate our children on what it means to be a responsible digital citizen.

Laws like the Harmful Digital Communication Bill are a good first step, as is supervising your kids, and educating the public about the harms of cyber-bullying.

However, without wider societal changes which address our current socialised aggression, misogynistic attitudes towards women, and lack of respect for human dignity we are unlikely to see much in the way of change.

So should we blame social media for the rise in cyber-bullying? Yes and no … and as frustrating as it might be, you always knew that answer was coming

After all the doom and gloom I thought I’d leave you on a positive note. Here is how Germans used social media to combat race-based cyber-bullying:

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Editor in Chief at here SMNZ, I have a passion for social and digital media. When not writing and managing SMNZ I am the Head of Innovation at TAG The Agency, a digital ad agency and the Head of Sales and Marketing for End-Game, a software development agency. I'm also involved with a number of startups and I am always keen to support those that are bold enough to give things a go. Start something, better to try than to live wondering what if...