Pranks have a way of getting out of hand, especially when they involve teenagers with non-existent forward-planning skills. Alex Boston, 14, sued two classmates for libel and cyberbullying in the US after they created a fake Facebook account of her with a racist video and sexual comments posted to her friends’ pages, ostensibly from her.
What forced them to go to court, says the Boston family, was the school’s and police’s refusal to act because the harassment happened off-campus, and social media giant’s tardiness in taking down the phony page.
Bullying and ragging have become institutionalised in schools and colleges the world over, with most of us emerging partially scathed from one or more such episodes of childhood malice. Cyberbullying — intimidating, offending or embarrassing others using smartphones, personal digital assistants and social media networks — however, is far more pervasive because it follows children out of the school, taking harassment right up to their homes.
Cyberbullying is underreported because it usually goes unnoticed. In India, three out of 10 parents said their children were victims of cyberbullying, mostly through social networking sites, found an online global poll this year done by Ipsos, a global market research company. Another 45% parents believed their children were being cyberbullied, but had no specific information on it. Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace were most widely reported platforms of abuse, followed by cell-phone devices and online chat rooms. The poll of 18,000 adults in 24 countries showed cyberbullying was higher in India than western countries, such as the US (15%), Britain (11%) and France (5 %).
Like malicious rumour, virtual bullying hurts without leaving a visible mark. It works insidiously by causing social exclusion, which can cause depression, insomnia, low self-worth and weight gain.
Children bullied during their early years are up to three times more likely to self-harm — described as cutting or biting arms, pulling out clumps of hair, banging the head against walls or attempting suicide — than their classmates when they reach adolescence, reported a study in the British Medical Journal this week. The research, from King’s College London, also showed that victimised children grew up emotionally distressed and developed psychological problems that led to higher risk of self-harming in later life too.
Some experts blame the educational system, which they say is too boring and unimaginative to hold the interest of a teenager looking for excitement. Most schools are curriculum-centric and offer teenagers and young adults no aggression-busting channel, such as through organised sports.
Blaming the education system or the popular media — television, films, popular fiction and video games — for de-sensitising people into threatening, bullying, trolling and beating others is an over-simplification. Sure, media desensitises to an extent but it an adult’s job — as a parent, teacher or mentor — to underline that in the real world, baiting or beating up an opponent, both virtually or really, does not solve a problem. Factoring in the human costs of violence — sadness, suffering and loss — can be used to help children step out of the Tom-&-Jerry state of mind into the real world.
Children who are on their own, a lot without adult supervision, are more likely to turn to bullying as a means to assert themselves socially, just as an isolated child left to himself most of the time may become a victim of bullying both online and offline. Complaints against your child or a sudden shift in her mood or behaviour are red flags that needs to be defused. Dismissing bullying, both real and virtual, as a part of growing up and expecting children to cope with being heckled or teased can leave scars that can surface unexpectedly in life.