Cyberbullying is a new twist on an old problem. There have always been bullies—people who were stronger—or thought they were—would harass the weaker ones. Sometimes it was for retribution or just to humiliate their victim.
(I wrote this as a research project for my Master’s in Cybersecurity and Computer Forensics at Utica College in 2014).
Bullying (and cyberbullying) cross all age, gender and socio-economic groups and is not isolated to any particular geographic area. Bullies use whatever means available to them. In the “pre-connected” times, bullies would ambush their victims in the playgrounds, in the streets, or even in Congress. Bullying can take many forms: verbal assaults, threats, or physical violence. The intended result of bullying is to force one’s will onto others. However, it is up to the victim (unless under physical attack) to decide whether to live in fear of the bully or to take counter-measures.
Bullies are experts at leveraging technology and identifying people, or groups of people, to launch their attacks on. Throughout American history there have been many accounts of bullying. Racial and ethnic injustice is bullying, for example. The American Indians were bullied out of their homelands. The Irish were bullied out of job opportunities. The Japanese-Americans were bullied out of their own homes during World War II and even after they returned to society (“Congress urged to pass anti-bullying bill,” n.d.). The list is endless. Most of these bullying actions were in the form of verbal assaults and government edict. The bullies and their victims were easily identifiable and the tactics and “reasons” behind them were well understood by all.
With the invention of the telephone, they took to the wire and bullied people via phone and later even by Ham radio. The Ham radio group “Hamsexy” is considered the “bully of the shortwave.” Hamsexy claims their antics are merely meant as jokes, but those on the receiving end do not see it as such. A review of their website (www.hamsexy.com) reveals forum posts and photographs poking fun at people involved in Ham radio. Their antics can be considered bullying or it can be taken for it is—lame attempts at shock humor. It had reached a point to those offended that it required cease and desist letters, and even Twitter movements, to combat these scourges of the airwaves (Shortwave_america, 2011).
Now, we have a new type of bully—one that is purported to be different somehow. The new type of bully is more vicious, more dangerous and more prevalent. It has become an epidemic that will destroy the youth of the world. The new type of bully is the cyberbully. But, should we fall victim to the hysteria? Maybe not.
Bully For You
To understand what bullying—and cyberbullying—is, we first must understand what the terms mean. “Bully” has its origins in the Middle Dutch language of the 1500s, as boel—lover or brother. During these feudal times, a “bully” was one’s sweetheart. It later took on the meaning of “blusterer” and “harasser.” In the 1800s, Thomas Hughes used the term in his novel, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, to describe a student who taunted others (“Old-School Sweetheart to Modern-Day Menace,” n.d.).
Later in that century, President Theodore Roosevelt took the word “bully”—which was the 1800s version of “way cool”—to new heights of popularity. It was another one hundred years before the word “bully” was appended into “cyberbully” to describe a bully who uses technology connected to the Internet, such as social media, texting, email, video, etc. The term traces its origins to 2000, shortly after the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. The Christian Science Monitor editorialized about the incident and referenced cyberbullying acts that could be carried out via the newly popular Internet (Arseneau & Contributor, n.d.).
Labels are applied to describe people and their actions throughout history. Often, those labels will change over time, as did “bully.” Labels are also used to excess to describe people. People are reviled as “liberals” or “conservatives” to segregate them into one ideological camp, often meant as form of derision—labelbullying, perhaps. Labels are used so often that the meaning becomes diluted and pedestrian.
Not a day goes by that the media will report on how President Obama is bullying Congress, or Vladimir Putin is bullying Obama, or Congress is bullying Obama, or Harry Reid is bullying Mitch McConnell, and so on. Not everyone can be bullied if everyone is the bully (Dean, 2013). To merely suggest something or express a disagreement or a criticism is all too often seen as a form of bullying. The frequency of events considered to be bullying is different depending on where in the country you are. In New Hampshire, it takes but one instance to be an act of bullying, Nebraska leaves that decision up to the Districts (“Are we too quick to cry ‘bully’?,” n.d.). Even in Canada, bullying is rampant. Dr. Neill Gottheil, a Canadian psychiatrist says that due to the broad meaning of the term every slight or altercation is considered an act of bullying. (Dean, 2013).
Cyberbullying: Real Crime or Mass Hysteria?
Now that bullying has taken root in cyberspace, society has a new, and more virulent, form of the age-old problem. People with bad intentions—criminals and bullies—are very adept at learning to use new technology to their advantage. Hackers have been hacking since computers were invented and abusive personalities have found a new tool to replace their megaphones. Bullies take to cyberspace because they know that they have an easy way to reach their targets—often walking right into the abusers’ line of fire willingly.
Web 2.0—social media—has become a staple of everyday life. Every demographic is hooked and hooked-in. From toddlers to centenarians, every category of the population is tweeting, posting, liking, and commenting on their selfies and updates on their cats’ busy day. The media has been reporting on the perils of cyberbullying for years, and when they do, it is almost exclusively about adolescent girls. That’s not really a surprise, since 81% of Internet-accessing tween girls use social media compared to only 72% of the rest of the population. Tween girls thrive on social interaction, and social media gives them a perfect platform to interact with their friends—and their bullies. When it comes to social media choices, the video-heavy channels are favored. YouTube is, by far, the most popular with a following of 45%, followed by Facebook at 15%, Instagram at 10%, and Twitter at only 8%. Instagram is favored by 23% of girls aged 8-12. One of the pitfalls of the visual sites is the rise in narcissism. 33% of tween girls report that “being famous” was important to them. Using visual sites, such as Instagram, gives these girls a perfect vehicle to launch their quest for stardom (Fashion, 2014).
Using these sites is voluntary. Although COPPA restricts social media usage to those above the age of 13, the anonymity and complacency/complicity of parents allows girls (and boys) of any age to log on and start sharing. Amazingly, many parents will help their youngsters set up social media accounts and then just walk away. The social media sites, and any age-restricted sites, certainly don’t help in enforcing these regulations. It is a simple matter to make up a false birthdate and log right in. A test conducted on www.pabstblueribbon.com, a beer site, showed that by entering the obviously fraudulent birthdate of May 11, 1877, access is granted, no verification needed. Age-verification on the Internet is a farce. 22% of 8- 12-year-olds who use the Internet have a Facebook profile, despite COPPA regulations. There is not much point in creating regulations and enacting laws if there are no real ways to enforce them. There are age-verification products available, such as Aristotle Integrity’s ID-Direct, that uses challenge-based questions and a database of 3.4 billion citizens (integrity.aristotle.com/products/#id-direct), which would help mitigate this problem.
These children become ideal victims for stalkers, pedophiles, identity thieves, and cyberbullies. With very little oversight from regulators or by the children’s parents, the criminals can have a field day in social media tormenting their victims who either do not know they are being victimized or simply do not care. As heinous as stalking or identity theft is, cyberbullying is an insidious activity that builds over time, sometimes without the victim’s realization until it is too late and the victim has reached the breaking point. Much like putting a toad in a pot of water and turning up the heat a degree at a time, the “toad” doesn’t know it’s being boiled until the damage is done.
What is the damage done by cyberbullies and just who are they and why do they do such horrible things? Cyberbullying can start as a simple prank or a one-shot “gotcha” directed at someone with no real harmful intent. It can also be an orchestrated campaign to humiliate, discredit or warn someone. “CM” is a 19-year-old college student. He was at a party recently when he made a comment to some people about a girl at the party. “Yeah, I knew her in high school, but I think she’s a lesbian.” A stupid, but innocent, comment made during the haze of a late-night gathering. A strange girl confronted CM on campus two weeks later. “If you ever say anything like that about her again, I’m gonna f—ing kill you! I’ve sent your picture to everyone so they know what you look like!” she threatened. Apparently, his picture was distributed through (and lifted from) Facebook. So far, no crime has been committed, but a threat (no matter how empty) had been made. CM had, indeed, been cyberbullied.
Cyberbullying is often considered a tween crisis. Girls just being girls, saying mean things to each other but using the immediacy and the anonymity of social media to spew their venom. “JM,” a 16-year-old high school boy says that “social media is only for 15- 16-year-old girls now; I’ve even deleted my Facebook account; it’s all crap anyway.” CM is also winding down his Facebook presence and taking up online residence on LinkedIn instead. For the most part, cyberbullies and others targeting youths have a small window of opportunity to exploit before they grow tired of these sites and move out of reach.
The 2011 movie, Cyberbully, starring Emily Osment, tried to illustrate the awful effects of cyberbullying on 16-year-old “Taylor Hillridge.” Taylor finally convinces her mom to get her a laptop, which she promptly uses to sign on to “Cliquesters,” a version of Facebook. It was fun for a while, until the evil “Lindsey” starting posting innuendo about Taylor. Taylor would reply and complain to her friend, “Samantha,” about how horrible it was. But, she kept on posting. Samantha even created a fake male profile (for some unexplained reason) to further torment Taylor. But, she kept on posting. It all became too much and she attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills. But, she kept on posting. Even after being warned by “Mom,” and betrayed by her friend, Taylor could not kick her addiction to social media, much like a drug addict’s addiction to heroin. In the end, the solution was so simple: join a support group that will give you the courage to stand up to Lindsey and everything will be OK (Binamé, 2011).
Too bad it’s not quite that simple. But, what real harm can come of it? It’s only words on a computer; the computer can be turned off and the account removed, right?
In October 2006, Megan Meier hanged herself. Megan was 13 years old, suffered from attention deficit disorder, depression and low self-esteem due to her weight. She was befriended by “Josh” on MySpace and developed an online relationship with someone she thought liked and respected her. Josh’s posts became more and more cruel, until Megan had had enough and committed suicide. In this case, it wasn’t “girls being girls” but an adult woman, Lori Drew, along with her employee and her own teenage daughter who perpetuated the online assault. Although charged with Computer Abuse and Fraud, Drew was later acquitted and the conviction vacated. Megan’s mother worked to get “Megan’s Law” passed to help mitigate cyberbullying (“Six Unforgettable Cyberbullying Cases,” n.d.).
In another case, 13-year-old Ryan Halligan hanged himself after being cyberbullied through AOL’s instant messenger service. Ryan’s friend-turned-bully began a taunting campaign accusing Ryan of being gay. Ryan then struck up an AOL relationship with a popular girl (or so he thought). The girl and her friends thought it would be funny to perpetuate this faux romance to elicit personal, embarrassing confession from Ryan, which they later shared over instant messenger. Seeing no way out, Ryan committed suicide to end the torment (“Six Unforgettable Cyberbullying Cases,” n.d.)
As tragic as these cases are, suicide was not the solution. In both examples, the children had developmental and emotional challenges. Their tormenters may have pushed their victims, but it was ultimately their choice to take their own lives. The parents, guardians, and counselors should have been on high alert in these cases, knowing how fragile these children were, and monitored their activities more closely.
In another case, cyberbullying was assumed to be the cause of a girl’s suicide. People were arrested and reputations tarnished by the rallying cry of “cyberbully!” Rebecca Sedwick, a 12-year-old Florida girl, jumped to her death in September 2013. Her mother claimed she was bullied on Ask.fm, a popular social media site. A 12-year-old and a 14-year-old girl were charged. It was revealed recently that there was no real evidence to charge these girls and Rebecca’s suicide could have been a result of her depression over a deteriorating relationship with her father. Rebecca’s mother sees it differently, citing Internet searches and deleted Ask.fm accounts as evidence of cyberbullying leading to her daughter’s suicide (Wallace, 2014).
The Cyberbully Industry
As the Sedwick case shows, cyberbullying is not a clear-cut crime. It is all too often used to shirk responsibility or deflect criticism. People, especially adults, will resort to cyberbullying knowing full well what they are doing and using it to their advantage. In 2013, Chef Gordon Ramsey featured Amy’s Baking Company of Scottsdale, Arizona on his reality show, Kitchen Nightmares. Amy and Samy Bouzaglo were tyrannical restaurant owners who abused their customers and ripped off their employees. Their exploits and peculiarities were highlighted on the show and social media was abuzz after it aired. Of course, being bullies in the physical world (“I’m a gangster,” Samy proclaimed), they took to social media themselves. They were taunted and they taunted back. But, what made their counter-counter-cyberbullying unique was that Samy was posting cyberbullying comments against himself to elicit more responses and then denying it (see graphics below).
Some people will claim to be cyberbullies, then claim to be reformed, then be accused of cyberbullying, and the cycle spins out of control. Cyberbullying is considered a cool, new fad, and opportunities abound in exploiting the concept. Chelsea Itson is a good example of claiming the mantle of cyberbully. Chelsea is an Ohio blogger. In 2006, she claimed she took up the hobby of cyberbullying as a way to vent about the passing of her beloved grandfather. She posted nasty things on other people’s blogs to take out her frustration. Then, she felt remorse at all the horrible things she said that, with her husband’s support, she wrote personal apologies to those she had cyberbullied and begged forgiveness. However, the victims had turned on her. She thought she had made up with the real people, even going to a concert with a new friend, but now she was the one being attacked by cyberbullies. Later, Chelsea got a new job. She found “evidence” that her supervisor was sprinkling a defamation website with her name. Chelsea had other cyberbullying problems at work and decided that she was now an expert at victimizing and being victimized that she started her own blog, overcomebullying.org, to expose the evils of cyberbullying. Was Chelsea really cyberbullied or was she just looking for her 15 minutes of Internet fame? Like a form of Münchausen Syndrome by Proxy, Chelsea instigated the problem and then complained about it and then exploited it, creating her own little Chelsea the Victim industry (Itson, n.d.).
The Chelsea story doesn’t end there. Others have taken her cyberbully-turned-angel story and have created their own anti-Chelsea industry at exposingchelsea.com. Not only does this site “expose” Chelsea but also her husband, Ellis. Cyberbullying cuts both ways.
In addition to Chelsea’s cyberbullying enterprise, the anti-Chelsea, Amy and Samy, Emily Osment, etc., there are a myriad websites, books, blogs, and other cause-related entities all jumping on the cyberbully bandwagon. Cyberbullying is a real problem. It has had, and will continue to have, devastating effects on people. Weak-minded people are easily swayed by what is said about them. Someone with low self-esteem may not see any other way out other than suicide. Cyberbullies will continue in their taunting because, as JM said, “it just doesn’t seem real.” By hiding behind a computer from somewhere in Ohio, like Chelsea Itson, the cyberbully can torment from behind a veil of anonymity and distance. Amy and Samy can cyberbully themselves thinking nobody will notice, trite movies like Cyberbully will be made, but Rebecca, Ryan and Megan will still be dead as a result of the perceived threat of cyberbullying. Nobody can be cyberbullied to death. Taking one’s own life is a personal decision. Unless cyberbullying turns into harassment or physical abuse it is, indeed, just words on a computer screen. It’s easy to blame technology on the problems of society, but social media is simply a tool. Tools are used and abused as people see fit. Some day cyberbullying will seem like a quaint notion like the bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. The big fear is: what, in the future, will be even worse?