Ditta Oliker

Ditta M. Oliker Ph.D.

The Long Reach of Childhood

"I'm Going To Get You" Is Sometimes Real

The Continuing Destructive Power of Cyberbullying

Posted Oct 30, 2011

I heard a tale of horror this week that was scarier than any Halloween tale could be. The story had it's own version of menacing ghouls promising "to get you" emanating from an amorphous, anonymous place and it was a story of cyberbullying.

The story took form as a woman I was seeing began to share her anxiety and anger at what her fourteen-year-old daughter has been experiencing. The story starts at a birthday party her daughter attended where the group was playing the "dare game" and she was dared to kiss one of the boys. Someone, using a website that allows for anonymity, later posted a distorted comment about the girl's response to the dare, twisting it around to imply that she had acted out in an inappropriate sexual manner. From the original anonymous posting, it continued to be spread through the various social networks, morphing into a monstrous fabrication of wild and crazy sexual behavior and a call for rejecting her as an unsuitable friend. Making the experience even more painful was the realization that not one of her friends had defended her or denounced the false accusations; some out of the fear that the unknown perpetrator would also attack them - and so the vicious cycle continues.

A headline and opening sentence of an article in the New York Times (May 5, 2010) reads: "Teenage Insults Scrawled On Web, Not On Walls. It is the online version of the bathroom wall in school, the place to scrawl raw, anonymous gossip." These websites that offer the online version of the "bathroom wall" were, until recently, seen as "just the latest place to hang out and exchange gossip, as teenagers have always done." What is missing from an understanding of the full destructive power of this kind of "exchange gossip" is the accumulated effect of the vicious circle of increasing distortions over an expanding cyber universe, particularly when the anonymity factor is included. It was damaging enough --pre-Internet -- to have distorted, mean-spirited anonymous gossip resonating through a school. The damage now done to the lives of countless young victims because of the void of responsibility as well as the lack of boundaries of the Internet is only now being recognized. The fact that cyberbullying has played - and continues to play - a part in the suicides of a number of young adults is finally getting legislative consideration, including its designation of being a hate crime.

It's important to remember that, unlike the bullying that most adults remember from their school days, cyberbullying is defined now as
using the power of the Internet - emails, chat rooms, instant messaging and social networking sites, as well as cell phones - to send or post text or images meant to hurt, embarrass and humiliate another person. It can include threats, harassment, stalking, impersonation, trickery and exclusion. The two special aspects of cyberbullying particularly damaging for a young person are: the void of a safe haven away from it, for as long as a young person has a cell phone and Internet access, the borderless nature of cyber communications permeates all of the spaces he or she exists within; anonymous postings feed a general distrust of others by the victim, leading to hyper vigilance in assessing social environments, causing some to withdraw and many to have long-reaching damaged social interactions. For the perpetrators, the anonymous postings act as a shield protecting them from experiencing any consequences of their actions, often leading to more virulent attacks.

All these aspects combine to create a situation for the young adolescent that is physically, emotionally and socially damaging. If the victim attempts to fight back, the perpetrator increases the "I'm going to get you" attacks, forcing a state of resignation. The bullying also has a reputational effect so that the stigmatization endures even after the actual bullying has stopped. The distortions and lies that get bonded to one's reputation become internalized, leading to feelings of hopelessness and despair. It is these feelings that can lead a young victim to decide that life is not worth living.

As I was writing this blog, the phone rang and a friend called to share his excitement over having just seen the Old Vic's production of Shakespeare's Richard III. As we talked about the play that deals with the power-hungry, malicious machinations of an ambitious man, I once again found in a literary story, a secondary theme that expanded the meaning of what I was writing about. The play, set in 17th Century England, has as its central character Richard, the younger brother of the King of England. Resentful of his brother's power and bitter about his own physical deformity, Richard begins a secret plot to secure the throne for himself. Over time through cleverly planted lies, hidden false accusations and stealth killings, Richard achieves his goal and is crowned King; but his actions eventually lead to his own destruction.

Where I saw meaning as it relates to bullying and particularly cyberbullying is in the denial of another's right to be respected and in the secret and stealth machinations that impact, or possibly destroy the lives of innocent people - that victimizers ultimately become the victim of their own stealth attacks - and that victimizers have existed throughout history. How we now deal with these individuals in our current world, filled with new and more powerful technologies, regardless of the term we use to describe them, will speak to what kind of society we choose to have.

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever. Hope you'll continue to join my on this journey. And hope your Halloween is free of anything or anyone out to get you.

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