Tom Gallagher

Film Studies & Media

05.A03. Technology

The Highs of Social Networking and the Rise of Cyberbullying

For decades now the internet has been bringing people together. Gone are the days when friendships would have to be sacrificed after graduation and families were obliged to be based in the same cities; the internet has revolutionised the ways in which we interact, and it would appear that everyone is making the most of it. It has been a steadily growing phenomenon, with the rise of 3G, online shopping and blogging all revolutionising the everyday lives of millions, but in recent years, one of the biggest talking points has been the rise of social networking. Social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace have infiltrated every corner of modern life. They have altered the ways in which information is exchanged, relationships are formed and free time is spent. They have provided untold possibilities for the online world and yet as the internet has aged and its users have begun to adapt, a darker underworld has emerged, and it appears to be here for good.

The introduction of social networking has brought about the unfortunate rise of cyberbullying, a social concern that has taken previous forms of harassment to a whole new level

The introduction of social networking has brought about the unfortunate rise of cyberbullying, a social concern that has taken previous forms of harassment to a whole new level. Having increased at such a substantial rate over recent years, the online underworld is reported on an almost daily basis by newspapers, television and ironically the internet itself and in light of recent cases, it is attracting more and more critical attention. Social networking has transformed social interaction forever. Users are now able to interact across the globe at the click of a button, creating and sharing information as they please, and although the user’s free will is important, it is this factor most specifically that has allowed cyberbullying to thrive.

The common understanding of bullying is based upon issues of ‘aggression’, ‘intention’ and ‘repetition’, with the majority of people recognising the difference between one off displays of conflict and persistent acts of hostility. This unfortunate social issue has always been a concern, but with the rise of new forms such as cyberbullying, experts have begun focusing their interests on the online world. Although hard to define due to the varying ways in which it occurs, cyberbullying has been recognised as carrying similar traits as the traditional forms, only with the addition of numerous methods of infliction. Due to mobile phones, laptops and tablets the opportunities are now endless and with the newly presented geographical loophole in which people no longer have to be within the same vicinity to interact, social networking and the anonymity that it provides is beginning to show its more unpleasant side.

Users who would ordinarily avoid confrontation for fear of physical or lawful reprisals find themselves free to act online as they wish, insulting and harassing others without consequence

Electronic modes of technology boast the ability for users to interact without physical limitations, networking through online profiles from all over the world. Unlike in real life situations, people now have reduced feelings of responsibility and accountability when online. In previous decades bullies would experience the incidents at first hand, having to deal with effects of their abuse or the intervention of onlookers, instead they are now able to impose traumatic abuse without such concerns. Although the majority opt to do so, when registering for these online profiles users are not obliged to enter their real details. Though it would be hard to enforce a system which ensured authenticity, the current one allows its users to exploit anonymity, acting under pseudonyms and avoiding any potential direct repercussions. Users who would ordinarily avoid confrontation for fear of physical or lawful reprisals find themselves free to act online as they wish, insulting and harassing others without consequence.

The masked identity that the internet provides also causes other concerns for the victim, with the unknown identity of the bully causing a heightened sense of stress and anxiety. In many cases victims have suggested that the content of the messages are a secondary concern in comparison to the unknown identity of the perpetrator, whose anonymity causes feelings of frustration and powerlessness. Victims are no longer able to pinpoint the source of their pain and as a result, the campaign of abuse becomes all encompassing, taking over the victim’s lives through fear of abuse at any time. One of the more famous cyberbullying cases centred around Sean Duffy, a 25-year-old man from Reading, who over a period of months, systematically harassed the families of dead children over the internet. Duffy, who has since been jailed for his crimes, exploited social networking sites such as Facebook to unleash a campaign of digital hatred, uploading a series of manipulated photos of dead children. Duffy used the unfortunate circumstances of his victims’ deaths such as suicide and rare medical conditions to inflict maximum distress on their relatives, adding captions such as ‘Hang in there Tom’ to photos of Tom Mullaney, a 15-year-old boy who had hanged himself in 2010. Throughout his countless acts of horror Duffy employed a various false identities, continually setting up fake profiles under different names and thus, he was able to inflict the traumatic effects upon the grieving families that he did.

Through the lack of face-to-face interaction cyberbullying has also changed the power dynamic of traditional bullying. Within the realms of conventional bullying the power imbalance between victim and perpetrator has always been particularly important, as the victim has always been noticeably weaker; if not in physical terms at least in numbers. Due to the lack of physical presence that is required for cyberbullying, the strength and agility of the perpetrator is no longer important; users need not fear the physical reprisals of their action and thus the world of cyberbullying has effectively rendered everyone equal.

The lack of physical presence within the realms of cyberbullying also impacts on the timescale over which it can be implemented. In years gone by, bullies have always had to be within the presence of their victims in order to carry out their campaigns of harassment. By having to physically seek out their victims, their actions have always been dictated by time and space. With the introduction of the internet and the rise of cyberbullying however, bullies have been granted an unlimited timescale in which they are able to carry out their abuse.

Cyberbullies can act from the comforts of their own home, and in reverse, their victims are no longer safe in theirs

In contrast to more traditional forms of bullying, cyberbullying occurs regardless of school or work timetables. Bullies are able to post comments or upload photos at any time of the day, rendering the victim effectively defenceless. Rather than relying upon chance, bullies no longer have to come in contact with their victims, as social media now affords them the opportunity to unleash unrestricted campaigns of harassment regardless of where they are. Cyberbullies can act from the comforts of their own home, and in reverse, their victims are no longer safe in theirs. Messages and photos are able to be sent from morning to night and as they do so, the ways for the victims to escape are become increasingly limited.

Where it was previously relatively straight forward to identify repeated acts of aggression, the introduction of social media and the rise of cyberbullying have proved to be more difficult. Regardless of the number of text messages or emails that can be recorded, the internet allows personal information to be exhibited worldwide, allowing thousands or even millions of people to access the information at any one time. With the number of views being untraceable, and the ready available access to ‘share’, victims are now surrounded by a mass scale of humiliation. Due to the nature of the internet, online activity is also permanent, bringing the issue of later viewings and sharing into account. Cyberbullying is seemingly timeless and can feel as if the acts of bullying are being persistently repeated as other users are able to view and re-view sensitive messages, images or videos that have been uploaded online. A perfect example would that of Tom Daley the Olympic swimmer who in 2012, suffered at the hands of an infamous cyberbully. Having failed to secure a gold medal Daley was tweeted by @Rileyy69, a 17 year old boy from Weymouth who publically posted “you let your dad down I hope you know that’. Due to Daley’s celebrity status Riley junior would previously have never had the chance to harass Daley in such a manner, but with the ever increasing opportunities that social networking affords, Riley was not only able to abuse Daley, but also amassed thousands of followers as he did so.

It is apparent that the damage caused by cyberbullying is similar to that of traditional bullying. What have become deciding factors, however, in the distinguishing of the two forms, are the worldwide audience that cyberbullies are able to exploit, as well as the false identities which they are able to assume. When you take into account how quickly sensitive material can be distributed online as well as the sheer size of the audience, it is becoming apparent that the online cyberbullying community far surpasses the schoolyard gang. Their newfound tactics cause severe psychological distress through intimidation, defamation and the ability to publicise public opinion both online and offline and with the ever advancing status of technology, it is hard to see where it will all stop.

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