Cyberbullying: A New Challenge for Parents
Human cruelty is nothing new, nor, sadly, is it reserved for adults. Indeed, one of the most troubling and universal social pandemics in recent experience has been bullying among the very young. For reasons that are still not entirely lucid, young adolescents in the middle school range are even more likely to be involved in long-term harassment than their high school counterparts.
The salient development of recent years is the advent of cyber-bullying, or the use of new technologies to sustain psychological attacks on others. For older generations, this may sound like a cause for lesser concern than the more palpable threats that take place on the playground or in the street. How damaging can a mere tweet or malicious text be, after all? In reality, however, the endless sea of the cybernetic ether is proving to be an even more insidious place of fear than the “real world.” In the words of one anti-cyberbullying activist, “the methods used are limited only by the child’s imagination and access to technology.”
Cyberbullying: How it Works
Indeed, the very lack of a face-to-face context is precisely what gives cyberbullies far greater psychological leverage over earlier harassers. True, the threat of physical harm from a flesh and blood assailant is almost always traumatic, but the menace of these conventional attacks ebbs after the physical danger goes away. With cyberbullying, victims face a shadow enemy unbound by time and space.
At its simplest, cyberbullying can be viewed as a teched-out extension of old fashioned bullying: the harasser floods his or her target with menacing emails, social media posts, or texts long after the dismissal bell has rung. But it’s the prospect of anonymity that widens the crosshairs on potential prey and creates an unnerving psychological dimension.
Creating a false identity for the sole means of virtual stalking is simplicity itself. It takes about five minutes to register and even mildly personalize a dummy email address, and truth be told, forging a well-rounded persona—replete with “real” friends—doesn’t take much longer. Armed with this cloak of invisibility, bullies can needle away with a slow-drip of taunts or carpet bomb with brazen threats—all with little concern for repercussions. Additionally, the very impersonality of the exchange—its disembodied, almost fictional nature—heightens the cruelty of bullies, since it’s easier to distance a social reality once mediated.
A New Social Reality
Although a sizeable percentage of cyberbully incidents involve kids who know each other “IRL,” many of today’s victims have never seen their assailant’s faces. A class of “career” bullies can trawl the internet for targets, in the process assembling online gangs that balloon to untold membership. Silent covens pillory their marks with the brutal efficiency that social media affords.
For many of the world’s young and their parents, cyberbullying is tainting the neutral image of the Net itself, tipping the scales toward the dark side by means of bad associations. Teachers and guardians have as a result have begun to monitor children’s internet and mobile activity with greater scrutiny, suspicious of predation at every turn. Many older adults go one further and insist on their kids’ full withdrawal from internet life, but this brings on an added dimension of suffering. Given that for many young people, a social media life is a social life, a cold-turkey cure to unkindness makes kids feel like pariahs even when its they who are victims.
In the past, bullying surely left emotional, social, and sometimes even physical scars on its victims. Often, the traces of trauma slipped away with the simple balm of passed time or a change in school district. Now however, it seems that the nature of online presence makes the necessary erasures for healing more difficult. Victims feel as though the whole world may be watching, not just for a moment of corporeal accostment, but for a cruel virtual eternity.
As with prior manifestations of bullying, cyberbullying is linked to numerous deleterious effects. Common psychological malaises include depression, anxiety, depression, other related emotional disorders, and in a rising number of cases, suicide. Equally tragic is the circular destiny of bullying: in retribution for their victimization, many targets evolve to become bullies themselves.
What You Can Do
If your child reports being cyberbullied, make sure to reach out to that child and let him or her know that it’s not their fault. One of the most insidious aspects of bullying is that over time, its victims internalize the belief that it was they who invited harassment; that they deserve it.
Additionally, educate yourself in the telltale signs of bullying-related depression and suicide, such as giving away multiple possessions, saying goodbye in a dramatic manner, or expressing true hopelessness. While suicidal ideations can often seem identical to typical teen doldrums, it’s better to be safe than suffer decades of regret. Even when suicide is not the final outcome, the results of bullying are always debilitating, so it’s up to all of us as a society to be vigilant against all of its manifestation. The mental well-being of tomorrow’s adults depends on it.