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Cyber Bullying: It’s Not About Sticks and Stones

A lot of things have transitioned into the cyber realm. People talk online, watch television online, shop online — they even ‘date’ and have ‘sex’ online. A nationally-representative phone survey of 935 teenagers released last week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project draws attention to the fact that just one more formerly real world activity has transitioned into the online arena: Cyber Bullying.

A lot of things have transitioned into the cyber realm. People talk online, watch television online, shop online — they even ‘date’ and have ‘sex’ online.

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A nationally-representative phone survey of 935 teenagers released last week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project draws attention to the fact that just one more formerly real world activity has transitioned into the online arena: Cyber Bullying.

According to the survey, “about one third (32%) of all teenagers who use the internet say they have been targets of a range of annoying and potentially menacing online activities – such as receiving threatening messages; having their private emails or text messages forwarded without consent; having an embarrassing picture posted without permission; or having rumors about them spread online.” However bullying was still widely identified as happening far more often offline.

The Group reports that making private information public appears to be the most common form of cyber bullying.

Fifteen percent of those polled claimed to have had someone take a private email, IM, or text message they had sent them and forward it to someone else or post it where others could see it. Thirteen percent claimed to have had a rumor spread about them online, while another thirteen percent reported having been sent a threatening or aggressive email, IM or text message. Six percent had had an embarrassing picture of themselves posted online without their permission.

Certain groups were identified as being more likely to be bullied. Girls are reportedly more likely to be bullied than boys, particularly older girls — with 41% of online girls aged 15 to 17 reporting such experiences. Intense internet users, social networking site users, and content creators are all more likely to report being cyber bullied than others.

While the ramifications of cyber bullying may seem small to many, to those being bullied, the ease with which the Internet allows the replication and dissemination of content can cause rumors and consequences that are both far-reaching and potent.

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“Bullying has entered the digital age. The impulses behind it are the same, but the effect is magnified. In the past, the materials of bullying would have been whispered, shouted or passed around. Now, with a few clicks, a photo, video or a conversation can be shared with hundreds via email or millions through a website, online profile or blog posting,” writes Amanda Lenhart of Pew.

Another key factor as to why cyber bullying can be so severe: cyber bullies can take advantage of the anonymity that the online interaction often offers. This makes them more confident and less concerned with the consequences.

Fourteen year old Kirsty Perkins, who made a suicide attempt last year that was then gossiped about online, told the BBC: “It’s easier for people to say things about you on the internet. People are scared to say things to your face.”

An interesting direction in which to further extend existing research on cyber bullying could be to examine the premise that the characteristics, and perhaps the demography, of cyber bullies may different from those offline. Someone who is bullied severely in school may use the Internet as a forum to vent his frustrations by targeting others online — acting as a cyber bully himself. Bullies in cyber space don’t have to be the biggest kids in the school yard, and in a world where sticks and stones really can’t break your bones, it is those most adept or loose with their words who can hurt others the most.

Have you ever been the target of bullying, threats or aggressive behavior online? Why do you think people bully others online? Do you think the characteristics of cyber bullies are different to those in ‘real’ life?

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