The low-tech solution to high-tech cyberbullying

(Hint: Turn off your computer)

by Emma Teitel

Brian Blanco / AP / CP

Last Monday, a 12-year-old girl named Rebecca Ann Sedwick climbed to the top of an abandoned cement plant near her family home in Lakeland, Fla., and jumped to her death. According to her mother, Rebecca was the victim of ruthless cyberbullying and stalking at the hands—or rather, touchscreens—of 15 girls. They taunted her on a number of social media sites, even after she switched schools. Like other bullying victims who took their own lives in the Internet age, Rebecca was encouraged to commit suicide online: “You should die,” and, “Why don’t you go kill yourself?” were among the litany of messages she received from her tormentors. This past year, her mother enlisted the help of the police and began monitoring her daughter’s activity online, but Rebecca—a digital native—evaded her surveillance. She did this by using anonymous “question sites” such as Ask.fm, a site where bullying activity has allegedly contributed to nine teen suicides. The bullies found her there, and carried on. Rebecca did not.

Almost five months before her death, the state of Florida signed an anti-bullying bill into law making it easier to charge bullies who inflict harm online. Nova Scotia’s Justice Minister Ross Landry took similar steps after the suicide of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, with August’s Cyber Safety Act—legislation that allows victims of cyberbullying to sue their bullies, or, if the accused are minors, to sue their parents instead. These laws are well-meaning but deeply flawed. They don’t prevent cyberbullying and they won’t—not only because anti-bullying legislation is, by necessity, extremely vague, but because the major catalyst of cyberbullying is the one thing we will never legislate against. It’s also the thing we cherish most about the Internet: its anonymity.

The wonders of the social web—the ability to browse pornography undetected, assume another identity in a chat room, stalk your ex-boyfriend’s Facebook page 300 times a day without his ever knowing it—would be impossible without the gift of digital disguise. But so, too, might cyberbullying.

In real life (IRL as they say online), in Canada, the majority of homophobes are closeted, the majority of racists do not accost minorities in the streets, and most teenage girls do not stalk and abuse their peers with untempered evil glee. But the anonymity integral to social media’s survival—the power to “creep” him or “troll” her—allows us to treat each other the way we have been treating celebrities forever: with brutal honesty and self-indulgent cruelty. The cyberanonymity available to Rebecca Ann Sedwick and her peers gave them the power to treat each other like strangers in the tabloids. On social media, all the world’s a star. But all the world’s a nobody, too—a dangerous combination.

Before the availability of instant anonymity, a teenage girl might wonder what other people at school thought about her, and occasionally she’d find out by way of a catty friend or some ugly scrawl on her locker. But today, on an anonymous question site, she can find out in precise, scathing detail (“Do you think Insert Your Name Here is pretty?” is a common question, with predictably poisonous results). Why, a logical person might ask, wouldn’t she avoid uncovering the dirt dished about her at all costs, the way some actors never read reviews? Because for the average teenage girl the sheer possibility of getting an answer, no matter how painful the potential result, is too tempting to ignore. (I know that I couldn’t ignore it.  Think of yourself at age 15, or 12: could you?) A captive audience is one of the two indispensable things any cowardly sadist needs. And there is no more captive audience than the one who runs into its own cage.

The second thing bullies need is an iron-proof disguise. Anonymous sites raise the level of weaponry available in this brand of emotional warfare, so that one person can pose as many different people, creating the illusion that your whole world hates you when, in fact, it may just be Cathy from third period. Welcome to the 21st century, in which the average preteen with an Internet connection must navigate her social stratum like Jennifer Aniston post-breakup.

Sites like Ask.fm and Formspring have come under pressure to combat bullying by beefing up identity tracking as Facebook did. According to Business Insider, “Facebook has made efforts to ensure that a high percentage of its accounts belong to real people—and it deletes the accounts of fake users. It also has privacy controls. You can lock down your account completely, if need be, shutting out the world. You can’t do any of that on Ask.fm.”

But if you wanted to, you could do something even more proactive than “locking down” your Ask.fm profile. You could turn off your computer.

Maybe the captive audience of teenage-girldom could shed its self-imposed chains, break the spell, and learn the simplest lesson: Jaws is only a scary movie if people go in the water. Otherwise, it’s just a day at the beach.

The Internet is mostly a source for good in this world. So is anonymity. Detach the public persona from the person and he is free to come out to his friends in a chat room or start a political revolution in an oppressed country. But when anonymity is a source of unending misery for those hanging on by a comment thread, perhaps our anti-bullying work shouldn’t be about the courage to speak out, but the will to sign off.

Have a comment to share? emma.teitel@macleans.rogers.com




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The low-tech solution to high-tech cyberbullying

  1. When my daughter bullied on line we just forwarded the items right to the local police department. The ip address was proof of who it came from. The other thing that was very helpful (and please don’t groan) was talking to the parents of the bullies. You have to do this in a very friendly and non aggressive way. I opened with “I know you didn’t raise your child up this way and I know if my child was doing this sort of thing I would hope someone would tell me.: and then explain the situation…Believe it or not this really worked
    The parents had no idea what was going on and thanked me for coming to them..with the parents I could talk to it was problem solved with no further issues with their children. .in some cases the girls became friendly with each other afterwards. I found the school not helpful and stating privacy reasons for refusing to give me a phone number to contact the patents so I insisted they contact the parents and give them my number with the message that I had an urgent matter to discuss. This worked. The school wasn’t happy but too bad..kids using ananymous sites generally do so on their own phones and laptops and not internet cafes so the ip address still leads to them…forward to the police and try to talk with the other parents. (Knowing the offending material has already been forwarded to the
    Police is also fairly motivating to the other parents.

  2. Why yes. Quit. Give up. Submit. Do what you’re told.

    It’s the ‘feminine’ thing to do.

    • Its not so much as feminine, as it is the good government sheep line. Starts in grade one as we teach them to conform at all costs. I must be like the teachers pet or my life is crap. Conformity makes it easy for teachers but doesn’t develop self thinking self worth. Self worth, the kid might question teachers authority or big government, can’t have that now.

      Problem comes where real life reality strikes, then the kids don’t have the self worth, the self respect to deal with real life challenges.

      Reality is, bullying is how our social structure works. Take abortion, some people want to bully others into their views. It is bullying. Politicans, employers do it all the time as if they can break your self estime you are less likely to leave and more likely to stay and work cheap.

      Taxation is bullying. So are unions, bullying is everywhere. Conform or else. Only those with self though, self confidence can survive the onslaught of bullies trying to influence you through life.

      The best but not the easiest answer? Teach them how to think for themselves and deal with all the forms of bullying.

  3. Could the author or whoever laid this out online explain why the article’s teaser on the home page has a STOCK image of a young woman, wearing only a tank top (ie ‘wife beater’) and possibly boxers, with her legs spread around her computer on an unmade bed? And this to illustrate an article on cyber-bullying, leading to the suicides of young women or girls — and when you click on the article, the image is of a casket being carried at a funeral, presumably perhaps Retaeh Parsons?

    Just please tell the readers why this incredibly inappropriate image was chosen.

    • I thought it was odd as well – the low tech solution to cyberbullying is to commit suicide?

      Other than that, I thought Teitel had a good message for once – turn off your computers and phones!

      • Why?

        What about TVs and radios? Or are you just anti-tech?

      • The article was about low-tech methods of helping bully victims, and the photo is of a funeral of a girl who died by suicide after being apparently baited into doing so by online profiles she was interacting with. She had real-life problems too though which probably played a bigger role in her self-destructive behavior and the low-tech methods are more of a fundamental way to address those problems.

  4. It really surprises me the hateful things people say on the internet…After all the awareness of cyber-bullying…I mean wow. So sad.

  5. It’s been recommended time and time again that young people ONLY be allowed internet access with parental supervision in a main room of the house where parents can keep an eye on what their kids are doing. Parents can also go into archived messages, emails etc. to see what they’ve been up to.
    If there’s a problem and a warning doesn’t cut it just pull the plug.

  6. Or better yet teach people to have self confidence, and to deal with bullying. Bullying takes many forms. Can be union extortion, government taxes, all are bullying you for something. But so much pressure to conform and not consider that people need to be individuals and not sheep.

    Advertising is intellectual bullying and brainwashing, as politicians do all the time. Lie, deceive, false pressure to make you vote fro a politicians is a form of coercion. Isn’t just unions, employers too will bully you to accept lower wages as people with low self confidence will be more easier to manage and abuse. Eco-scare, protests, correcting bad behavior, we all do bullying to some degree for good and for bad.

    But we don’t teach such things in school, we break the kids self confidence as to make them easy to manage kids, then fill them with liberal feel good and fantasy nirvana junk. Then when they grow up, they are not prepared for the real world of gorilla bullying and guess what? Many commit suicide as they are unprepared and mislead about life.

  7. Sadly Emma, it is never as easy as just turning off the computer because these bullies literally follow their victims where ever they try to escape to. Why do you think the girl had to change schools? The bullies then contact people in the new school. It is relentless, horrible harassment on the part of the bullies. Why shouldn’t it be the bullies who lose the right to use a computer? They, after all are the ones who are being abusive? Why punish a victim but isolated them further?

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