Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bullying in the Online World

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.


SecondSight said...

I feel nothing but sympathy for children driven to depression, drugs and suicide by bullying, online or in real life. However, I think it is a little too simplistic to blame such incidents on the phenomena of social networks, which, I'd insist, are extremely useful when used correctly. As with anything else, social networks are a tool. How we choose to use them is up to us. To quote the common analogy of airplanes- people fly in them, and people die in crashes. There are ample articles and 'etiquette' rules for how people and their kids should conduct themselves on flights. Yet I'm still waiting for the manual on social structure/ evolution in aircrafts :)

Neeraja said...

It is precisely to not oversimplify the problem that I think more thorough understanding and research is necessary. I think comparing the vast world of the Internet to the inside environment of a airplane is oversimplifying things greatly. I never argued that the Internet or Social media are useless and "evil". They definitely offer their share of immense boons along with banes. I argue that kids don't really see the usefulness of these media and the power that they carry as much as they see the peripheral entertainment value they provide. And there is ample evidence that such tools are misused without enough knowledge, responsibility or guidance. I am just stressing on developing the knowledge and responsibility.

SecondSight said...

I think that applies to almost anything powerful in the hands of children or those incapable of using tools correctly. Not sure why social media should be different- in the sense of teaching children that they aren't supposed to lie about their age to gain adult privileges, bullying or nasty behavior is not okay, etc. Overall, I'd say the lessons are the same- just that they have to be conveyed about different things as well.
P.S: I'd also hesitate to link 'social media' and the internet in this context- libraries have restricted sections, so does the internet. As long as they stay within the kid-friendly zone, the internet is a pretty cool place for a kid :)

Anne said...

True Neeru. Just today I was shocked reading this news http://ibnlive.in.com/news/girl-kills-self-after-being-dumped-on-facebook/186127-3.html

If a well-educated and supposedly intelligent girl can take such a drastic step, obviously children are much more vulnerable. I see people nowadays creating FB profiles for newborn kids - for what God only knows! By the time they grow up and are "legally" allowed to go on social networking sites who knows if FB will even be around anyway?!?

On a different not, you might find it a little hard to believe but I too was a bully in junior classes! Thank God I grew up and got some sense (or so I believe although Ajay says that I am still a big bully ;-))

And do you remember that big bully in our bus?! ugh!

Neeraja said...

I mention social media as one main component, specifically in the context of bullying in today's age. That is the crux of this post. But to understand how the dynamics of social interaction has changed due to the virtual world, the social media offers just a pinhole worth of view; the entire world of Internet has to be taken into consideration for a careful study. Everything is tightly coupled with one another. The point is the Internet has these "kid-friendly" areas only in theory. It's extremely easy to work around its restrictions. I don't see where I insist to shut down the entire Internet or avoid a child from logging online - it goes without saying that the information era we live in owes a lot to the Internet. However, the vast majority of kids on social networking sites (or in another places on the Internet) spend their time on activities that don't contribute to their growth in any way. As there are exceptions to every rule, there may be 5% of that population that is part of nerdy groups and discussions, but you can't equate them to the rest.

The most important stand I take is that the virtual world operates way differently than the real world. If you were to tease someone (even casually) in front of ten people, the immediate/sustained response is different than what you get when you post a message casually that can be viewed by 300+ people (or more based on privacy settings). There is also a temporal nature to this event. In the real world, words (the sounds atleast) dissipate then and there. In the online world, they persist for hours/weeks until they are taken down; even if the original is taken down, morphed copies continue to reach out to more and more people.. Even for adults it's sometimes difficult to grasp the gravity of such posts and the tremendous reach that they have. These channels afford many more alleys and opportunities to err, even unintentionally. Ethical grounding is one part of the issue which is more deep rooted, but when there is an inadequacy of such grounding (inevitably), such avenues exacerbate the situations due to ignorance of how this easy-to-access through a click, seemingly simple online world operates, and how it boomerangs to affect the real world and one's life.

Neeraja said...

Anne, thanks for sharing the article! It is tragic.

You, a bully?!! Can't imagine :).

And on yeah, how can I forget him?! He ruined the first year for all of us!!