The evolution of bullying in an internet-driven world
People most often talk about the good aspects of the internet rather than the bad. We’re able to reach others through the virtual screen that we sit in front of for most of our lifetimes. Although humans are wired for socialization, digital media allow quick and easy access to others. With this, those that have an issue with interacting with people in person don’t have to face the fear of physically interacting with one another. Members of marginalized groups can also connect with others who are not as often able to express themselves outside of the virtual world. We can easily observe the strength in these groups, such as the LGBTQ and mental health communities forming over an online platform.
Yet people have difficulty talking about the dark side of the web, where adolescents are attacked and harassed on their own profiles or feeds. Just as if a socially awkward person finds the courage to easily connect with others, bullies or those with bad intentions can easily access victims, too.
A social worker that’s worked at Fallsburg Central School District for 22 years knows what it’s like upfront and personal how kids interact with social media and how it affects them.
“I do believe that the mental health of adolescents has declined overall, social media being one of the reasons how… kids perceive themselves in relation to other kids and adults too. On social media we see the perfect person, the perfect life, but clearly that’s not always the case behind the screen.”
“…they’re missing out on a lot of social skills and then come into the school environment and show that they have difficulty socializing with others or adults … Now, they can post something nasty on Instagram or Snapchat and this starts problems. The internet never sleeps, and it doesn’t forget either; and I think that’s something kids need to be educated on.”
Even though a lot of the cyberbullying cases are hidden in the depths of the online world, there are still parameters to be followed if these issues are unveiled. Each state deals with online bullying differently. All states have laws against cyberbullying, and most of them have policies and laws in place for fighting against it too. However, victims can choose a few routes to seek justice through the legal system, whether it be civilly or criminally. Unfortunately, even if you plan on pursuing justice, many cases are expensive and invasive of your information, most often not offering the justice that many victims are seeking.
In New York, the legislation is applied the same for both bullying and cyberbullying. The key terms used in its legislation include harassment, bullying, intimidation, taunting and discrimination. These are outlined specifically to describe some actions that count as threatening another person through bullying and social media. Subgroups who are most often threatened over social media include race, ethnic groups, disability, gender, sex and sexual orientation.
First and second degrees of harassment both have similar classifications, such as threatening victims with physical injury, and annoying or alarming them for no legitimate reason. The first degree is only a class B misdemeanor, resulting in a punishment of a fine up to $1,000 or facing a maximum of three months in prison. The second degree of harassment is a violation that results in a fine but no jail time.
Most threats that are targeted at online subgroups are considered aggravated harassment in the first degree. This includes harassment, annoyance, threats and alarming anyone of a specific color, race, national origin, gender, age and disability.
According to the i-SAFE foundation, even though over half of adolescents have been bullied online and about the same have engaged in harassment, justice is not served as often as victims would like. This is because some comments that are directed at the victim may be protected under the First Amendment, freedom of speech. Some of the threats that are received or sent online are most often not verifiable and cannot be proven dangerous unless there’s a suggested time, place and location given by the perpetrator. Various police departments are also sometimes unfamiliar with online platforms, where the cyberbullying is taking place. This can then mean that they’re not adequately trained enough to deal with cyberbullying situations due to their lack of knowledge regarding social media. The victim may also be reluctant about pursuing a case because it costs a lot of money and time consummation.
The harmful effects of social media are made manifest in other ways than just cyberbullying.
Sophie McGrath, a 17-year-old from Vassar College, speaks about her experience with social media, explaining how it’s affected her mental health.
“I don’t think it’s beneficial for adolescents. It’s a huge cause of anxiety and it also most often leads into depression. The ‘fear of missing out’ is something that really affects me the most. I’ll see a picture on Instagram about how other people and my friends are having so much fun, which in turn makes me feel worse about myself,” she said.
Coming from Fairfield, Connecticut and moving to Warmouth, Maine, Sophie describes how social media affects her new life in high school.
“I’ve deleted Instagram from my phone so that I don’t feel obligated to look at it and see how much fun other people are having. During the summer, I was obsessed with seeing what other people were doing and I felt like I couldn’t control myself,” she continued.
“When I moved to Maine I got Snapchat and Instagram just so that I could stay in touch with those back at home from Connecticut. This only made me feel worse because… I was noticing what I was missing out on back at home. It made it harder to make new friends just because I saw that my old friends were having fun back at home and comparing that to myself.”
In another form, social media can act as a bridge, a place for people that feel different to connect with others that are in the same predicament.
Josue Chavez, an 18-year-old that attends SUNY Oneonta recalls a time in which he’s struggled with being comfortable because of the time he came out as gay to his peers and family. When coming out at the age of 14, and coming from a Christian Hispanic family, it was hard for people surrounding him to fully accept the person that he is. His parents were raised in Latin America with conservative and traditional ideas, making it hard for them to accept Chavez’s sexuality. By connecting with other people over social media, it helped fill the gap of support that he needed for a difficult transition like this.
“The online community welcomed me with open arms, helping me rationalize my feelings and understand that taking my life wasn’t the answer. I felt included when I came out as gay because I didn’t have other people to talk to about it, I only wanted to speak to people that could relate to me,” he explained. “Online, I was able to talk to other people about their situations, how they coped and handled things. This made it easy for me because these people actually knew what I was going through… giving me the empathy that I needed. It helped with my mental health and coming to terms with myself, and I will always be grateful for that.”
Today, social media is used in so many ways, giving us the opportunity to see into other people’s lives, allowing us to keep up with news in a more concise manner and connecting with people that actually understand us. Although it can be deeply flawed in many ways, social media also grants us the power to connect and learn from others in a way that revolutionizes the world around us.
Julia Batista is a first-year journalism student that wants you to hit her up on ask.fm. Yes, it still exists. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.