According to a recent study by the Cyberbullying Research Center, approximately 20% of kids aged 11-18 say they have been victims of online aggression. In a world of catastrophized headlines and sensational sound bites, these numbers don’t actually sound so bad, but take the time talk to any school-aged technology-user (read: just about any tween or teen that you meet on the street) and you will no doubt gather that the danger posed by cyberbullying is not in the breadth of its perpetrators and victims, but rather in the depth of damage that online aggression can cause. Just what is it that makes cyberbullying so bad?
No Rest for the Bully-Weary
Before the advent of social media networks, cell phones, and unlimited text plans, young people who were bullied in school could count on hours spent at home as a respite from ridicule. Today, kids are connected to each other 24/7/365. “Relentless” is the word I use when I talk to professionals and parents about the nature of cyberbullying.
Cyberbullies Don’t Have to Make Eye Contact
Spreading malicious rumors online about a person is one thing; saying mean things to a person’s face is quite another. Young people find it far easier to be cruel when they don’t have to look into the eyes of the object of their viciousness. One of the most grave dangers of cyberbullying is that it can occur anonymously, as perpetrators operate from behind keypads and screens, rather than eyeball to eyeball. Kids who cyberbully learn that they can get away with aggression without having to own up to it. For too many, anonymity is a Get-Out-of-Guilt-Free card.
The Pain is Viral
Physical, verbal, and even relational bullying almost always occur as a 1:1 encounter between a child who bullies and his target. Even when bystanders are present, the audience is limited to the number of peers who can sit at the lunch table, jeer from their bus seat, or eavesdrop on the phone line. In cyberbullying, however, the potential audience is almost unlimited. Cruel posts, embarrassing photos, humiliating videos, and vicious messages can be shared endlessly and remain online forever. With the simple touch of a “Send” button or click on a “Status Update,” instant and almost unimaginable damage can be done.
You Can’t Take it Back
Because of the nature of technology, what happens on the internet stays on the internet. When I talk to school-aged kids, I often compare cyberbullying to squeezing toothpaste from its tube, explaining that once the paste is out, it is impossible to get it back in. Verbal apologies notwithstanding, once an item is posted online or sent via text, it remains available to anyone who received it and can be forwarded again and again.
Proximity is Not Necessary
Physical bullying requires two people to be within striking distance. Social exclusion is most painful in real-time. Cyberbullying, on the other hand, thrives on after-hours and distance. Even when a young person is safely nestled at home, with the care and support of family, she can be simultaneously under attack online by her peers. There are no time or space boundaries with cyberbullying.
Signe Whitson, LSW is a school counselor, author, and national educator on bullying. For more information on the dangers posed by cyberbullying and ideas on how adults can help kids deal with it, please visit www.signewhitson.com