Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Cyberbullying--So Hot Right Now

I admit, when I first heard the term "cyberbullying," I was skeptical. For one thing, it seems like more fluffy words have been invented in the last ten years than in the last two hundred. Nouns become verbs (Google to "to Google"), words change meaning (become friends or "friend" on Facebook), and the word "cyber" or "electronic" or "web" is tacked on to the front or back end of old words to make new technology sound familiar. More than that, however, things like cybercrime or cyberstalking always seemed a little bit less scary than "real" crime or stalking, which makes me think of being held at gunpoint. The internet provides a buffer of physical protection, even isolation.

In the case of cyberbullying, that isolation is actually more harmful. First, unlike high school hallway insults, victims don't get to see the bully face to face, so they can't "stick up for themselves" to maintain some dignity. Second, they may not know who the bully is, rendering them powerless to stop the bullying and deter it in the future. Third, victims may not know who "witnesses" the bullying. They may suffer even more embarrassment as a result, wondering and worrying about who knows what and their reaction. Facebook posts, instant messages, and texts can be widely distributed on an ongoing basis. They become "viral," and their distribution is out of any one person's control. This can generate a feeling of helplessness, which, as Dr. Gupta explains in the above article, can lead to depression.

As an extension of the phantom bully, it is laughably easy to impersonate someone on the internet via almost any communication tool. Osborn Machler represented a young man who was impersonated on Twitter. The impostor Tweeted offensive and racist comments to another teenager, which resulted in threats to our client. In the case of an impersonator, there are two victims: the person impersonated and the bullied recipient of the online communications. Once the damage is done, it is extremely difficult to deescalate and set the record straight. It may be near impossible if you cannot determine the identity of the impostor. Unless the police jump in, this could require a lawsuit and several subpoenas.

The good news is that most online social media sites are receptive to concerns of impersonation. Twitter, for example, has an impersonation policy. Facebook has a "Report This Person" button on every Facebook profile. By clicking it you can report impostors.

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