Cyberbullying and Its Implications for Human Rights

©Sierra McKenna/2011-2016 Mouseleaf
 

Most health professionals would agree that stress is the biggest factor affecting the mortality rate in modern society. If left untreated, stress can have detrimental impacts on both physical and mental health, and can lead to conditions such as heart disease, insomnia and depression. It is no wonder that stress has reached epidemic levels when one considers the sheer volume of stimuli reaching our consciousness on a daily basis, not to mention the increasing demands on our time and volatile changes across political and economic systems.

At a societal level, stress is often regarded as an issue exclusively impacting adults, with young people often being excluded from the conversation. Young people, however, are under an immense amount of pressure to succeed academically, as exams become increasingly challenging and frequent. The growing global talent pool and economic uncertainty further contribute to the pressures placed on young people to succeed and compete directly with their peers.

Aside from academic pressure, young people have even bigger issues to contend with: shifting hormone levels, questions of identity and living their lives publicly online.

Digital identity is a relatively new concept, so there is no real precedent to follow regarding the integration of technology into our daily lives and ways to distinguish between our online and offline personas. While the Internet is a powerful tool that can be used to connect like-minded people and communities, it is also often used as a platform to defame, harass and abuse people within the sanctuary of their own homes.

Research suggests that up to 7 in 10 young people have experienced online abuse at some point.1 The term ‘cyberbullying’ is often treated as a distinct phenomenon, but it is an extension of bullying, which is an age-old problem. Bullying taps into societal undertones of prejudice and discrimination and often impacts people with protected characteristics of race, religion, sexuality, gender identity and disability the most.

Traditionally, bullying was of ten exclusively confined to the educational environment, with one’s home being a safe haven. Today, however, it is possible for a young person to be bullied not only at school but also in the family car or at home, alone in their bedroom, and even in clear sight of their parents or guardians without those adults ever being aware. With communication technology being so integral to modern living, some young people have very little opportunity to escape the abuse, and many remain in a constant state of stress and anxiety. One in three victims of bullying have self-harmed as a result, and 1 in 10 has attempted suicide.2

It is consistently found that approximately one in two young people who experience bullying never tell anyone out of fear, embarrassment or a lack of faith in support systems. Abuse, whether it be online or offline, plays havoc with the mental and physical health of young people and generates additional surges of stress.

Over a four-year period, from the analysis of 19 million tweets, a Ditch the Label and Brandwatch report found that there were almost 5 million cases of misogyny on Twitter alone. Fifty-two per cent of the misogynistic insults recorded were authored by women and typically targeted the appearance, intelligence and sexual preferences of other women. The report found 7.7 million cases of racism, 390,296 instances of homophobia and 19,348 transphobic messages sent on Twitter.3 Only public data was examined, so when the figures are extrapolated from the entire Internet to include both public and private communication channels, the level of online hate speech is overwhelming.

For all of us, our identity is sacred and something that we spend our entire lives crafting and evolving. For a young person, identity is temperamental and something that still remains largely undiscovered. Identity influences come largely from protected characteristics and as such, young people attach a great deal of importance to their religious and cultural identity, sexuality, gender identity or a disability. These characteristics are frequently used to bully a person online. Abuse often breeds internalized resentment for oneself. A young person who experiences racism online is likely to see their skin colour as the issue, and they may want to change that aspect of his or herself in order to avoid abuse.

The same report found that those discussing politics and sport online were the most likely to receive abuse on the platform, thus highlighting a culture of intolerance and disrespect towards the heterogeneity of opinion. The type of rhetoric employed throughout the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States of America normalized abusive behaviours to a certain extent and sent a clear message: that it is okay to digitally attack those with a different perspective or opinion. This undermines the right to freedom of expression that we should all have, and creates an environment in which the self-expression of others—often marginalized groups—is suppressed.

Appearance-based bullying is one of the most common aspects of abuse both online and offline. In a crowded, celebrity-obsessed world, young people are under an immense amount of pressure from the media, influencers and the content that they consume to look and behave a certain way. The value of attractiveness is something that is learned and reaffirmed continuously from a very early age, so issues such as body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders increase as young people aspire to look like the edited versions of role models they see in the media. In a recent Ditch the Label survey, it was shown that one in two young people now want to pursue such methods as plastic surgery to change how they look.4

Many young people turn to social media in the search for validation from their peers. This trend is problematic because self-confidence and self-esteem become conditional traits that are heavily defined from an external perspective. It makes young people vulnerable to appearance-based insults online and creates a superficial culture of appearance-based values. There has been an increase online in subcultures of communities sharing images of people and rating their level of attractiveness. Many young people are willingly subscribing to these communities in hopes of being validated, with their self-esteem on the line. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for abusive messages to be posted, attacking a person’s appearance, with or without their knowledge.

The Internet poses unique challenges in terms of abuse. For instance, there are no geographical restrictions to membership or communication; it is now possible for someone to receive abuse beyond their own offline community. Cyberbullying often suppresses the dignity of recipients in an incredibly public way, where others are able to contribute to and validate the ridicule by liking, responding to and sharing abusive content.

Not all cyberbullying is instigated by people who know the recipient; it is often sent anonymously, which can have further implications on the validation of abuse received offline, too. Anonymous bullying can greatly undermine the confidence and sense of safety for those receiving it because it is difficult to prove without the intervention of authorities where the abuse originated. It can create paranoia and often be more powerful than abuse from someone the person knows.

In more extreme cases of cyberbullying, recipients have had their physical security and privacy compromised through the unauthorized sharing of their personal information, such as their address, phone number and intimate family details. ‘Revenge porn’ is a term used to describe the act of sharing pornographic content involving a person without their consent in an effort to defame and embarrass them both publicly and intimately with their friends and family. Steps have been taken to introduce harsher legal sanctions against revenge porn as the act can have devastating impacts on the victims of such abuse. At a societal level, the subjects of revenge porn are often blamed for their own abuse and told that they should have never sent a naked image or video of themselves. This is challenging because it only adds to the problem and essentially validates the behaviour of the aggressor. It attaches shame to the exploration of sexuality, which should be a healthy element of modern relationships.

The Internet erodes historical socioeconomic barriers to communication, making it possible to reach anyone online—from friends and family to celebrities and world leaders. Open communication channels are generally good for the advancement of humanity, as they encourage greater collaboration and shared learning. Now, however, anyone with a social media presence can be susceptible to cyberbullying and abuse online. The transparent and viral nature of the Internet has the power to alter a person’s temperament and even their long-term fate within a matter of seconds, regardless of who they are or their life experiences. For societal role models, it is not so much a process of learning how to prevent bullying online as about learning how to deal with it in productive and empowering ways, without allowing actual or pre-emptive abuse to suppress their own thoughts or behaviours.

Everyone has the right to civil liberties and to live a life that is dignified in equality with others. It is important to reframe the issue to understand that a person is never abused because of their race, sexuality, religion or disability, for example. A person is bullied because of the negative attitude or circumstances of the aggressor. The key difference is that attitudes and circumstances can change with the appropriate levels of support and education. Identity is not something that can be changed or influenced by abusive behaviour, and no one should ever attempt to do so.

Young people must be encouraged to freely express themselves and exercise their rights in all environments, digital or non-digital. They must be empowered to contribute towards a democratic, global community by sharing their own ideations and opinions without attacking others who hold contrasting views.

A world that is truly fair and equal requires a culture of respect and mutual understanding. An interconnected world requires communication standards to which all adhere. With that goal in mind, we still have a long journey ahead of us.   

Notes

1    Ditch the Label, “The annual cyberbullying survey 2013” (Brighton, 2013). Available from http://www.ditchthelabel.org/research-papers/the-cyberbullying-survey-2013/.

2    Ditch the Label, “The annual bullying survey 2016” (Brighton 2016). Available from http://www.ditchthelabel.org/research-papers/the-annual-bullying-survey-....

3    Ditch the Label and Brandwatch, “Cyberbullying and hate speech: What can social data tell us about hate speech online?” (Brighton, 2016). Available from http://www.ditchthelabel.org/research-papers/cyberbullying-and-hate-speech/.

4    Ditch the Label, “The annual bullying survey 2015” (Brighton, 2015). Available from http://www.ditchthelabel.org/research-papers/the-annual-bullying-survey-....