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The anonymity and public nature of online communication encourages aggression and amplifies the potential for humiliation
Ryan Halligan was taunted for months. Classmates spread rumours via instant messaging that the 13-year-old boy was gay. A popular female classmate pretended to like him and chatted with him online only to copy their personal exchanges and share them with her friends. Unable to cope, Halligan, of Essex Junction, Vermont, killed himself.
Gail Jones, a 15-year-old from Tranmere near Liverpool in the UK took her life after receiving, at one point, 20 silent calls on her cellphone every 30 minutes. Her father, Glyn, suspects a final call in the middle of the night pushed her over the edge.
These are extreme but far from unique examples of the devastation wrought by cyber-bullying. Since Halligan died in 2003 and Jones in 2000, more and more children are logging onto the internet, so it's likely that online bullying, including sending threatening messages, displaying private messages and posting embarrassing video and photos online, is also increasing. A study last month by the Pew Internet & American Life Project based in Washington DC found that one-third of US teenage internet users have been targets of cyber-bullying (New Scientist, 7 July, p 23). Meanwhile, as online communication evolves from instant messaging and chatrooms to social networking sites and YouTube, the venues where bullying occurs are becoming both more central to young people's lives, and more public.
Research into the causes and effects of cyber-bullying is still in its infancy. But it is becoming clear that aspects of online communication encourage people to act aggressively, prompting them to do things they wouldn't dare to try in real life. What's more, the ability to reach more people, and the always-on culture of the internet, means that cyber-bullying can have an even more detrimental effect on the victim than conventional playground bullying. "It's school-yard bullying taken to the next level," says Justin Patchin, a criminologist at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. A study by UK-based internet market research firm YouGov in 2006 found that for 1 in 8 young people cyber-bullying is even worse than physical bullying.
One reason for this is the sheer number of people who can view something that is posted online. "It would be bad enough to be cyber-bullied by one kid and nobody else knew about it, but a video seen by hundreds or thousands of your peers could be devastating," says Robin Kowalski, a psychologist at Clemson University in South Carolina and co-author of the book Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the digital age, which will be published in October.
Ghyslain Raza, also known as the "Star Wars Kid", learned this the hard way. In 2002, the somewhat overweight and slightly awkward Canadian adolescent made a video of himself playing with a pretend light sabre and left it lying around at school. When his classmates found the video in 2003, they posted it online as a joke. Raza was so upset he finished the school year from a psychiatric ward. Unfortunately for him, it wasn't just his friends who found the video amusing. According to UK marketing firm The Viral Factory, it became the internet's most downloaded video of 2006.
The internet doesn't just amplify the effect of bullying, however. The many options to remain anonymous when online, by using pseudonyms for instant messaging, say, means people can write things they would not dare to if their identity was known. Anonymity was at the heart of a 2001 incident when a student at an elite high school in New York City set up a web page that let students vote anonymously on who they felt was their most promiscuous peer. "Just enter the name of the person in the interschool who u think is the biggest ho (be them FEMALE or MALE) and write the number of their grade next to their name (maybe even their school)," read the site. "Since its anonymous, u can write about whomever u please!" More than 13,000 votes were cast, and about 150 names, mostly girls, appeared before it was shut down.
Anonymity can also amplify bullying's negative effect on the victim. "The psychological ramifications of not knowing who's attacking you can be maddening," says Kowalski. "The bully could be your best friend, a sibling, or half the school." In a recent, as yet unpublished survey she carried out, nearly half of the children she interviewed didn't know who their cyber-bully was.
The lack of face-to-face contact might tempt bullies to new levels of cruelty. "On the playground, seeing the stress and pain of the victim face-to-face can act as an inhibitor to some degree," explains Carr. "In cyberspace, where there is no visual contact, you get more extreme behaviour." Kowalski says the effect is unique to computer-mediated communication. "There is a distancing of the self and immediacy in response that we don't have in any other form of communication," she says. "On the computer, it's like it's not really you."
So what can be done? Led by Ruth Aylett of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK, a consortium of European researchers recently developed role-playing software called FearNot!, which gets children to empathise with a victim of bullying. After watching a short animation of a child being bullied either in the playground or online, the viewer is asked to help the victim by typing advice into the computer. The software will be tested in schools in the UK and Germany later this year.
Meanwhile, some governments have taken legislative action. In January 2006, the US Congress passed a law making it a federal crime to "annoy, abuse, threaten or harass" another person over the internet. Approximately 36 states have enacted similar legislation. And in South Korea, the "internet real-name system", introduced last month, forces online portals and news websites to record the identities of people who post content and to disclose their contact details if someone wants to sue them for libel or infringement of privacy. However, it can be difficult to persuade people to take these laws seriously, and in the US they only apply to over-18s. "Many jurisdictions don't want to investigate or prosecute these cases," says Al Kush of WiredSafety.org, an internet safety advocacy group based in Seattle, Washington. "They are short-staffed and busy pursuing what they call 'real crime'."
John Halligan, the father of the boy who killed himself after being harassed online, continues to lobby for cyber-bullying legislation that specifically targets children. He also talks to school groups and runs a website recounting the events that led to his son's death. "It won't bring Ryan back," he says. "But it is helping a lot of Ryans out there that are still alive and don't know where to turn."
Online Bullies Attack Adults, Too
Second Life is designed for adults and to access most locations you are supposed to be at least 18 years old. Yet nearly 2000 abuse reports are filed each day, says Linden Labs of San Francisco, who created Second Life. "It's adults hassling other adults," says Thomas Chesney of the University of Nottingham, UK, who has encountered pushing, swearing and shooting there. Chesney and colleagues recently set up an office in Second Life where they interviewed more than 100 inhabitants about bullying. Chesney says that because many people come to Second Life with a background in gaming, they bring preconceived notions of violence and aggression with them. "They're playing games like World of Warcraft -- where the aim is to kill everybody -- and they take that attitude into Second Life," he says. "It's a bit depressing that we haven't progressed beyond hassling one other, but not surprising given all we know about workplace bullying."
Teachers have also been victims. Tired of insults from students on websites such as RateMyTeachers.co.uk, the UK Association of Teachers and Lecturers said earlier this year that it is ready to go to court in support of teachers who have been libelled online. The union would target publishers of websites directly, not the children who post disparaging comments.
Meanwhile in South Korea, celebrities have been the high-profile victims of anonymous cyber-bullying attacks, reportedly including TV star Jeong Da-Bin and pop singer Yuni, who both later committed suicide.
- Mckenna, P. (21 july 2007). The cyber-bullies are always with you…. New Scientist, 27, 26-27.
Reflection Exercise #7