Rise and Resist Against Cyberbullying

Published on 5 September 2021

“You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live…..I think there are many among you who would be glad to release the world from captivity…….This is what prevents them: They’re unable to find the bars of the cage.”

Daniel Quinn, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

Photo by Fernando Arcos on Pexels.com

Cyberbullying is a real-world problem, which needs immediate attention.  Families need to monitor children’s online activity.  Cyberbullying is commonly defined as “an aggressive, intentional act or behaviour that is carried out by an individual or a group, using electronic forms of contact repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself.”  There are many online platforms where cyberbullying takes place, namely social networking sites, online gaming, blogs, emails and apps.

According to a report by UNICEF, the online risks faced by children are the following:

  • Cyberbullying includes emotional harassment, defamation and social exposure, intimidation and exclusion.
  • Online sexual abuse and exploitation, distribution of sexually explicit and violent content and harassment, revenge pornography, sextortion, production and distribution of child pornography materials.
  • Cyber extremism deals with ideological indoctrination and recruitment, threats of extreme violence.
  • Online commercial fraud includes identity theft, phishing, hacking and financial fraud. 
  • Habit formation and online enticement to illegal behavior include access to alcohol, cheating, plagiarism, gambling, drug trafficking, sexting and self-exposure.
  • Grooming is a term for preparing a child initially by befriending, gaining trust and setting an environment for abuse, exploitation or ideological manipulation.

Online versus offline bullying

Cyberbullying is different from traditional bullying because the perpetrators can bully any time of the day, anonymously, and it can spread rapidly online.  There is no safe haven to get away from cyberbullying.  Whenever the victims get online, even at home, they are exposed to it. Messages can spread virally to many others, and it can be potentially embarrassing and long-lasting.  It can affect vulnerable young people, lower their school grades and lead to academic problems.  It can have negative effects on both bullies and victims.  It can lead to negative social, academic and health consequences with higher levels of depression and lower self-esteem, suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts.  The Russian intellectual, Evgeny Morosov, explains the social implications of technology, and according to him, “social media’s greatest assets of anonymity, virality, interconnectedness are also its main weaknesses.”  No doubt the digital technology boom has created wonderful opportunities for all, but the downside is that it has also paved the way for the exploitation of children and young adults by online predators.

A child’s knowledge and behavior are influenced by age, cultural and religious beliefs, school, observation of family and friends, and consumption of electronic and print media.  According to the report, Children in a Digital World, children and adolescents under the age of 18 account for an estimated one in three Internet users around the world.  It highlights the fact that for some online users, social media was a source of stress, as there was a need to constantly post something attractive about themselves to garner likes and admiration from their circle of friends.

There is a wider gender gap in the use of mobile phones between girls and boys.  Around the world, more girls face restrictions in owning a cell phone.  In rural areas, it is a general belief that cell phones and the Internet corrupt young people. Typing “how to have” in YouTube’s autocomplete feature will throw up disturbing and highly inappropriate suggestions to the users.  It is easy for a child to stumble on such content, which gets advertised online alongside their favorite videos on YouTube where the latest hit sensation YouTuber is building a box fort or introducing the next awesome game or unboxing the latest toy.  Children are normally curious and if they are exposed to such traumatizing videos, memes or jokes online, they cannot protect themselves.  There are features online to monitor everything a person does in real-time.  The age limit to be on social media ranges from 13 to 16 years.  Impersonation, threats of violence, abuse and harassment are commonplace online.

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Online grooming

A predator carefully builds a relationship with vulnerable young people over months and strives to win their trust.  This period is called as grooming.  After grooming, the predator begins to manipulate the child and then proceed with ghastly acts.  Not all perpetrators of sadistic online abuse come from broken homes.  Some of them are highly educated with supportive families, enjoying every advantage of a good life, but continue to indulge in horrific acts online, under a false identity.  Most countries have no rules in place to combat online grooming of children, according to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC).

Cyberstalking

Cyberstalking involves following a person online despite opposition.  It has become a punishable offense in India.  It is now known that mobile phones can track their users even when their location services are turned off.  It is easy for a mobile device with a malicious app to know the user’s whereabouts, like where they live, go to school or work, the vehicle they use, and the routes they travel.  However careful a gadget is designed, it is still prone to flaws and vulnerable to attack. 

Connected toys

Connected toys for young children and smart electronics are breeding grounds for hackers and identity thieves.  These toys can also be used to reinforce good manners and help learn a foreign language.  Young children using digital gadgets need adult supervision.

Dark web

Dark web or darknet sites are rampant with illegal drug trafficking, pedophilia, pornography, child trafficking, and a storehouse for stolen ID cards and credit card data, according to Europol.  When young people stumble on the darknet, get exposed to lurid, obscene, extreme acts and behaviors on it, over and over again, they become immune to the real emotional human connection. It can alter their thinking and have a profound negative effect on them with unimaginable ramifications.  This often leads to KGOY syndrome or Kids Getting Older Younger, which is sometimes exploited by marketeers online.  Anyone can shop for anything from hard drugs, weapons and even escorts with a cash-on-delivery option.  Studies show that light drugs were the most commonly traded items on the dark web, and 26 percent of its contents were aimed at child exploitation.

Mitigation

If it takes a village to raise a child, imagine what it would take to protect a child?  Apart from parents who play the most important role, there needs to be a wider network to effectively tackle cyberbullying and online abuse.  Big tech companies must design technology ethically, make networked communication productive and not predatory, and produce long-term value not just for shareholders but also for society at large.

Government and Lawmakers:  General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was set up in 2016 by the European Union (EU) to protect its people and strengthen individual data protection while also addressing the export of this data outside Europe.  In India, B. N. Srikrishna Committee was formed for a setting up data protection framework and the Government of India introduced the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill, 2018.  Currently, the updated PDP Bill 2019, is under review.  Accessing, producing, recording, uploading or circulating child abuse videos or pictures are serious punishable offenses under the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000.  Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, protects any person below 18 years of age.

Caregivers:  The digital landscape can be a tough terrain for the parents to patrol if they are not aware of its intricacies themselves.  Before any cyberbullying and online abuse cause pain, distress, and danger, the caregivers can help their children be prudent online.  To begin with, they need to understand the way children engage with technology.  Teenagers will pretend to follow the strict digital rules set in their house, only to break it once they are unsupervised.  Young people tend to freely share their photos and key information, befriend strangers online and develop relationships.  Age-appropriate exposure to digital content is crucial and potentially life-saving.  Having routine conversations about technology and the risks they face online can be helpful.  There should be parental control of media consumption, but there is no need to cyber-proof the children.  Hand them the necessary tools of self-care and resilience.  Supervision and education rather than restriction is the answer.

Young people:  Children should follow good role models online, be involved in productive digital activities and imbibe values that mold good humans and help build character.  Children should learn about safe and dangerous texting.  Young people who are victims of revenge porn should inform their parents or a caretaker and seek psychological counseling if the need arises.

General public:  The majority of the people see the Internet as a safe place for them and they are confident of their skills to protect themselves online.  But it is important to be aware that anyone can be targeted easily online, their accounts hacked, and personal photos morphed and circulated, resulting in character assassination.  If the person is vigilant and places a complaint on time, then the law enforcement officers can intervene and take down the images before it goes viral, track the perpetrators and take appropriate action.  All contacts, emails, music, messages, photographs, and banking history are stored in the device.  The applications or apps in smartphones have access to user’s sensitive information.  With health apps installed on the phone, it is easy to know the health status of the user.  Digital advertisements collect and exploit user data.  Online fraudsters can extract crucial bank details and siphon off money.  With geolocation services and metadata on the device, the location of the user is known, as well as, the location history of all the places the user had visited.  The netizens must exercise greater caution, understand the security implications and the fact that nothing online is ever truly free.

Photo by Cristian Dina on Pexels.com

Remember always…..

The digital memory stores all of what we say and do online for posterity.  All our words and deeds are carefully stored online, and we stand to be judged not just by our present peers but also by our future ones, according to Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, the author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.

The cell phone has become people’s constant companion.  This digital device is a powerhouse of user information that can be put to both constructive as well as destructive use, depending on whose hand is dealing with it.


Further Reading

Sivani Saravanamuttu, PhD: The Digital Pied Piper Effect (2018)

UNICEF: Children in a Digital World (2017)

UNICEF: Child Online Protection in India (2016)

Cyber Safety (2020), Cyber Peace Foundation

Sebastián Bortnik: The conversation we’re not having about digital child abuse, TED

The Information Technology Act, 2000

The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), 2016

Be Internet Awesome with Google

Apple – Child Safety

Common Sense Media

Children’s code / Age appropriate design code

Last updated on 13 September 2021

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