It’s very hard for me to learn about kids that are driven to commit suicide due to unbearable bullying in school. Almost every month, I hear of some unfortunate story. There was a documentary I watched a while back that makes a strong case for recognizing bullying as a punishable offense by law. Some states have brought such laws into effect, but for the most part the debate continues on the ambiguity of what is bullying, when does it cross the line to turn into an offense, and who are responsible for it.
Some amount of bullying is part of growing up in any animal society. It either makes one tougher, or affects one deeply as to stunt their confidence, self-esteem and psychological growth. Perhaps due to more awareness, wider news coverage, the power of social media, or the gradual changes in the personalities of the newer generations, it seems like there are more children who are drastically affected by bullying. Children - the very definition of innocence and goodness, also seem to bear a cruel streak. Even in kindergarten, there are those little bullies that don’t hesitate to tease, push, hit, and dominate over the docile ones. They are capable of being relentlessly merciless to kids that are different and “weaker” than them in any sense. Perhaps it’s the indelible animal instinct that wakes up and flares until it is tamed by discipline and social norms. Perhaps it can be attributed to genes and chemical imbalances in the brain. Or more regrettably, it’s due to parental negligence, resulting in low-self esteem and the need to assert one’s superiority and buried frustrations on the weaker ones. Whatever the reasons, it continues to shock and horrify me to encounter such kids. It surprises me even more that in this land of abounding school counselors and therapists, these kids still grow into hardened bullies, and the bullied kids receive inadequate reprieve or weak support systems to deal with the harassment.
But according to me, there is one obvious factor that has pushed bullying to intolerable heights in today’s age. Thanks to the immense power of social media, one demeaning post, one embarrassing picture, or one painful video can go viral, reach out to thousands, and shatter the dignity and tender feelings of a bullied kid. It’s much more easier to tease, gossip, spread horrendous rumours, photoshop/morph photos, and engage in dark-humor with a wider audience of thousands and millions. I see kids under 10 years having their own facebook profiles because they simply entered a fake age to set up the account. In the hands of such kids who are unaware of the power and far-reaching impacts of the Internet and social media, the worst gets showcased. They have no understanding of privacy or security. A while back, online chat forums proved to be disastrous for kids, today it is the seemingly safe and “useful” world of social networking. In addition to such forums depleting their precious time with aimless acitivites, they prove to be channels that unleash instincts that are carefully repressed in the real world. And it’s all done with impunity. This has been said numerous times before, but I feel the need to say it again.
Of late, I have started to firmly believe that we need newer branches of the social sciences to study the evolution of human society as influenced and shaped by the Internet. There are numerous impacts that ripple out as the virtual and real worlds intersect. The dynamics of social interactions in online social forums and networks is vastly different from what we are used to in the real world. There are different rules, structures, and consequences. We need to understand how to reliably restrict access and control to this sphere, just as how we try to restrict access to books, movies, information, food, drinks, and environments in the physical space. The process gets more complicated and more ambiguous for sure. Freedom of expression takes a slightly different color in the virtual world. Boundaries are even more blurred and confusing. It’s important to acknowledge that we’re dealing with a whole new world. Nothing is solved by applying stop-gap solutions based on trial and error stemming from our basic comprehension of the real world dynamics. Everything cannot be extrapolated directly from the real world to the virtual world. More thoughtful research is necessary.
In the meanwhile, perhaps we have some responsibility in speaking out to friends and family that naively encourage and or ignore their kids’ online activities.