Cyber Bullying: Why the law needs to keep up with virtual reality

The Labour Party’s call for a “proper legal framework” to tackle cyber bullying is only surprising in that it has taken this long to be voiced.

Cyber bullying has been a serious problem for some time. It is two years since the 2012 Virtual Violence II: Progress and Challenges in the Fight against Cyberbullying report which revealed that 1 in 13 children experienced long-term cyber-bullying, with 5% of those self-harming, and a terrible 3% of them attempting suicide. At the stage this report was created, 52% of that bullying happened on Facebook. It is only more recently that ask.fm – a site where users can post with complete anonymity – has come onto the scene, and since its creation there have been four teenage suicides in the UK alone related to bullying on the site.

The UK is not alone in its experiences of teenage suicide related to internet abuse. High profile cases in the US include the appallingly misogynistic attitudes towards Amanda Todd and Retaeh Parsons – both of whom were vilified for sexual activity (in one case, being raped by her school-friends) and ended up committing suicide.

There have been arguments – notably from the mother of ask.fm’s founders – that parents are responsible for letting their children online too often, and with too little supervision. Many schools have recommended that students simply be kept away from the sites, but this is equivalent to telling children to stay off the playground. And having experienced the real-life kind of bullying for a short while in primary school, I can tell you that staying home from school or claiming you’re too ill to go out into the playground does not help your case. It gives the bullies more cannon-fodder, and pushes you apart from the friends who might have stood up to protect you. In my case, the bullying only stopped when I deliberately goaded the group of older girls into a physical attack in view of my then teacher, who entered the fray like nemesis itself and scared the living daylights out of them. But where are the people like her on ask.fm? Where are they on facebook, on MSN, on Twitter?

The internet, and in particular social networking sites, are where teenagers are these days. Attempting to keep the victims from these sites is further isolating them, and is ignoring the problem of the bullying itself. The internet is not going to go away. What needs to leave the party is this sense that it is an anonymised, consequence-free realm in which the angry, spiteful or unhappy can make themselves feel better by destroying the confidence of others.

Some fingers have been pointed at the site providers. In the case of ask.fm, which came under fire after 15-year-old Hannah Smith killed herself after being told to “die of cancer” and various other forms of abuse, the site responded by putting in place some easier ways of blocking users and of reporting them. But in the aftermath of those site changes, users complain that no action is taken after individuals are reported, and Hannah’s father is amongst those who feel that the changes are nowhere near good enough.

It is easy to see where these complaints are coming from. Making it easier to block users is not doing anything to affect the lack of accountability of the individuals who troll others, and they are able to simply create another anonymous account and keep going. The lack of any fear of consequences was clear when a tribute site to Hannah was trolled in its turn.

It is clear that the victims of these attacks need protecting, but more than that, the bullies themselves need some kind of system of action and reaction. Most of the trolls are teenagers, and when they are caught, they frequently claim that they never thought it would have that effect. The Belgian 16-year-old who hounded Hannah Smith the day before her death tweeted directly afterwards about his fear, claiming he “never thought it would go that far.”

There are very few arrests made of trolls, thanks to our muddy laws on what is and isn’t legal. And this only encourages the feeling of unreality and total unresponsibility of those who troll online. What kind of learning is it that it is possible to hound someone to either suicidal depression or to death, and to escape all consequences? What world is it that lets them voice attitudes that are at odds with every humanitarian or equality-based principle of the countries in which they live, and gives no comeback? At least if they were to say these things in public, there would be some kind of argument. But anonymously, online, they are safe in their bigotry or – perhaps worse – in their deliberate adoption of appalling attitudes in order to hurt.

It was in many respects encouraging to see that, in the US, Rebecca Sedwick’s tormenters were arrested after her suicide http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2013/1121/Charges-dropped-in-Rebecca-Sedwick-suicide-case.-Did-the-system-work-video – before the charges were dropped. Whether the charges ultimately being dropped was a good thing or a bad thing is unclear. It is possible that the arrest might have been enough to scare a girl who felt free enough of guilt that she tweeted: ‘Yes IK [I know] I bullied REBECCA nd [sic] she killed her self but IDGAF [I don’t give a f***]’, and that in not actually charging her, the justice system has made it possible for the two particular girls who bullied her to have some kind of normal future. But for the rest of the world, the case probably stands as a sad indictment of the process of law. Katelyn Roman was able to stand behind a defence that her Facebook account was “hacked” and she did not make the comments urging Rebecca to drink bleach, etc. And if you’ve been a member of any social networking site, you’ll probably have seen this excuse used time and time again once the trolls have been caught.

So the bullies need accountability as much as the victims do, as a warning that their actions have real consequences. There have too many high-profile cases of teenage suicide after cyber bullying, and not enough cases of high-profile prosecutions.

Reading all this as an online user, I desperately want the sites that I use to stay free of this kind of trolling. Even as a self-confident 30-year-old, I find positive contact on sites such as Wattpad or Facebook (the latter generally with people I know well, but not always) really motivating and warming. It gives me a little glow every time someone makes a nice comment about a post or a book or a story; even about a photo. And having once been the victim of a very inept attempt at trolling from the boyfriend of someone I disagreed with, I can tell you that I am still annoyed about it to this day. It may be virtual, but there is nothing unreal about the effects of online interactions.

And reading as a parent, I’d hope that these measures might be in place long before my three-year-old son becomes embroiled in the world of social networking. I wince thinking about him being subjected to the kind of attitudes expressed in trolling posts. But changes in the law still can’t happen soon enough, because there are teenagers now being undermined; being attacked; and being driven to feel that this bullying is so inescapable that they can only escape it by committing suicide. It’s desperately sad, and heart-breakingly avoidable.

Gytha Lodge is an award-winning theatrical writer and director, as well as a single parent of one totally nuts three-year-old.

She has a hit online fantasy series for young adults (and grown-ups) on Wattpad, the first book of which is the Watty Award nominated The Fragile Tower.

You can follow her on Wattpad, Facebook and Twitter.

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4 thoughts on “Cyber Bullying: Why the law needs to keep up with virtual reality”

    1. Thanks so much, Josie! I agree wholeheartedly about the need to avoid victim-blaming. It seems to surface in particular areas of the law, and my take is that it is usually the ones related to experiences that particular policy-makers simply don’t understand. E.g. living in an internet-centric social sphere; being poor; being female.

  1. Amazing – I am writing about this too, albeit in a different format! Absolutely no argument that we have a responsibility to make some serious changes. However, I do think the technology itself is struggling to help convict… A troll claims to have been hacked. How do we get past “reasonable doubt” when many people use one straightforward password all over the internet? In considering prevention rather than cure, I believe it is the same part of human nature that causes road rage. In live, face-to-face debate, we often have to wait our turn. We learn from a young age that it is rude to shout over others, to call names etc. Perhaps if we expect the human race to be spending a considerable amount of our future behind a screen and keyboard, social and emotional education needs to reflect this.

    1. Great to hear you’re writing on the same theme! I think it’s a very rich vein because of the prevalence of this kind of behaviour. I was originally researching all this for my MA dissertation piece, and my head’s very much still in it!! 🙂 You’ll have to let me know your take.

      Yes, very much agree on the struggle to convict. I’d say in the illustrated case (Katelyn Roman and the facebook and twitter comments) that it is extremely unlikely that she failed to notice a hack both before and after the death of a girl known to her. But we presumably shouldn’t have to worry about reasonable doubt if the sites log IP addresses and reveal them. If messages of that kind were posted from her home computer, using both her twitter and facebook accounts, that would seem to be beyond reasonable doubt.

      Interestingly, in the Hannah Smith case, ask.fm were very swift to claim that many of the messages trolling her came from Hannah’s own IP address. Whereas the site (and others like Facebook) have seemed less willing to provide IP addresses where it might actually serve to convict, and to strengthen the case against the unpoliced nature of their sites.

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