I was six years old when I peed my pants in the middle of the schoolyard.
Everyone laughed. The horrible memory comes back to me as I type this on the screen.
But there is no evidence to my embarrassment. No YouTube videos. No Instagram photos. No Facebook comments.
In that regard, I’m glad I’m not a child in 2016.
Today’s bullies can be anonymous and their torment can reach much bigger audiences. False rumours can spread with the click of a button, and there is little you can do once it’s published.
I am getting ready to write my master’s thesis on cyberbullying. And needless to say, a lot has changed since I was a kid and accidentally wet myself on that schoolyard.
Here are a few of my current thoughts on the topic, based on the latest research.
A childhood behind the screen
Do you remember climbing trees, rolling in mud and prank calling? Me too!
Today’s youth spend their time differently. EU Kids Online reports that Internet use is increasing among kids and teenagers.
In Sweden, kids are two years old when they browse the web for the first time. This figure has nearly quadrupled from 7% in 2012 to 26% in 2014.
Furthermore, large media companies shape the web and its rules. Our kids grow up in this commercial environment, and it’s worth to keep in mind.
Scholars Marja Åkerström and Phillip Young call this generation the digital naturals. For these digital natives, internet and apps are as natural as trees and lions (wait, wifi doesn’t grow on trees?).
But let’s not jump to any hasty conclusions and blame technology for all our shortcomings. Kids are still free to climb trees and play in the mud after all.
Indeed, societies will always worry about the latest technology because we fear change and what it can do to us.
The key is to reflect on how we use technology and how it changes our day-to-day interactions with each other.
Technology is not the problem, people are
Sonia Livingstone points out in her excellent TEDx talk that:
Internet is not the problem; people are.
It’s easy to forget the other person behind the screen. You can’t see his facial expressions or tears. Sometimes, you have no idea who’s talking to you, and that anonymity may cause anxiety and distress, according to some researchers.
But life online is not all bad.
Internet offers new ways to grow, learn and connect with people from all over the world. If you choose to step outside your own bubble, that is.
(Most people don’t, by the way. We like our bubbles.)
Bottom line: Technology is what you make it.
Unfortunately, some people use web-based technologies to harass others, and that’s when it becomes cyberbullying.
What is the difference between bullying and cyberbullying?
Great question! To answer it, we first need to look at traditional bullying.
Dan Olweus offers the most established definition, which states that people are bullied if:
- They are repeatedly harrassed over time by one person or a group of people.
- The negative actions (physical or verbal) are caused with intent by the bully (or bullies).
- There is a power imbalance in the relationship between the victim and the bully (i.e. the victim struggles to defend himself).
Can you see how cyberbullying changes the game? For example:
- Repetition can take numerous forms on the internet.
- Intention can be more difficult to determine (hands up if you’ve received a “funny” email or text from a friend, family member or colleague).
- The power imbalance is turned on its head (anonymity and technical know-how outcompete physical strength).
Technology offers a new weapon for bullies to torment their victims. Harassments can take place outside of school, without the knowledge of parents and teachers.
This is what makes cyberbullying so important to study. We find ourselves at the intersection of technology and society, seeing how technology affects our kids’ health and self-esteem.
The use of new communication tools makes cyberbullying different (and potentially more harmful) to conventional face-to-face bullying.
We need to help children navigate the muddy waters of the internet, so they can become responsible, critical and caring adults that stand up against bullying – both online and off.
I am starting to feel old, as the online and offline worlds increasingly overlap.
Are we ready to take on this challenge, or will the internet be a place reserved for bullies and trolls?
Share your thoughts in the comments on how we can make the internet a safer and more pleasant place for us all.
During my master’s thesis, I’ve come across a few useful resources. Here is a short list to help you or someone you know stop cyberbullying: