What You Say Matters: Stopping Casualized Cyberbullying
(TW: Brief mention of suicide, physical abuse)
October is National Bullying Prevention Month. I know when we think bullies, we tend to get an unrealistic, over-the-top idea from some cheesy teen movie of a jock in a Varsity letter jacket, pushing someone into a locker and demanding their lunch money.
Because of portrayals in the media like those, the term "bully" might seem silly to us as modern day high schoolers, because it's someone that we would never actually encounter in our everyday lives.
Personally, I myself have rarely ever heard my fellow classmates using the word "bully," and studies showed that bullying decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly due to distance learning serving as a physical separation between bullies and victims. Some even claim that the word "bully" has lost its meaning as it was overused to describe situations that weren't really bullying. Regardless, it might appear that the trend of "bullying" is diminishing, and finally our society has advanced past that.
I would agree that the more surface-level bullying has diminished, in terms of being mean just to be mean, or physically tormenting one student for an elongated period of time. However, with this new age of technology, furthered by the pandemic and online learning, it seems that bullying has taken on a new form, through the Internet.
It is actually astounding to see the effects that anonymity can have upon one's behavior. Once you feel like nobody can actually know who you are, you feel free to say whatever you like on the Internet, believing that you won't have to face any actual consequences. This idea is coined as the Online disinhibition effect, which in other words is the lack of restraint one feels when communicating online versus communicating in-person.
Due to this effect, I've witnessed the true "freedom" that people have been able to achieve over multiple anonymous accounts at my school, whether it be an anonymous-message-posting account, or just someone posting memes or opinions on random things at my school. But beyond my school, I've seen these types of anonymous accounts take off across the Internet, as many of us (me myself included) have secret TikTok accounts where we can post whatever we'd like and still never become found out by those we know.
However, with this new power comes new danger. I bring up the anonymity of our online presence because it can easily become a weapon with which we can hurt others, sometimes intentionally and other times unintentionally, without ever having to face the consequences of our own actions.
For example, I've seen people who have different, more obscure interests being bashed for sharing that part of their life online. Sometimes I'll come across comments of more quote "cringey" videos on social media like cosplays, Hamilton edits etc. and people will comment "sometimes bullying is good," or "where are the school bullies when you need them" etc. Comments like these have amassed hundreds of thousands of likes on those viral "cringe" videos, and many of them were made by people with anonymous accounts, who feel that no one can truly trace it back to them. Furthermore, many content creators get hate comments far worse than this, for example telling them to k*ll themselves, or death threats etc. I don't even have that large of a platform, and I have gotten multiple messages telling me to "go die," so I can't even imagine how much worse it could be for those who have created more polarizing content, and gotten larger reactions to it.
However, I want to emphasize that "hate comments" can disproportionately affect people who are more vulnerable to this type of cyberbullying, primarily youth/minors, teens or kids, or people who aren't in a good state of mental health. I still believe that the life of the social media influencer or content creator is one of great privilege, and although putting up with hate comments is difficult and I understand that, they also make a living off of their platforms, and have many other privileges that I believe must be recognized first and foremost. While no one should be subject to any kind of cyberbullying, influencers are essentially paid to deal with it and learn to fight against it - that's part of their job as they continue to put out content.
On the other hand, those who aren't professional influencers, who make money off of their online presence, I believe can more easily be affected and impacted by cyberbullying. People who don't put themselves online daily usually don't have to deal with receiving hatred on an extremely widespread level. But due to the online disinhibition effect, and the dwindling of "in-person bullying" for lack of a better term, this type of online bullying and hate commenting has dramatically increased, causing many people to experience this never-before feeling of "everyone hates me" magnified by social media. For example, if someone goes TikTok viral, but consistently gets comments mocking their appearance or the way they speak, this could be the first time they've experienced those types of remarks, and feel as if the whole world hates them and therefore they're definitively ugly/untalented/weird/etc.
Personally, sometimes the judgment of the bandwagon of anonymous Internet users who see my videos feels like the be-all-end-all of my life, the measure of whether I am actually good enough, pretty enough, talented enough, all of the above. It's so crazy to think that I actually let a group of people whom do not know me and in the moment that they come across my video entirely detached/separated from their own actual identities decide my worth.
By looking at it from the perspective of someone who casually creates content and (full disclosure) does not regularly make money off of it, I have come to the conclusion that our online accounts ultimately depend on our own sense of accountability, and whether we can truly stand the test to be kind, and enforce the boundaries of normal social behavior even in online spaces.
That's why this October, I'd like to challenge you all to come along with me on a pledge of no negative comments, not even on things that we find "cringey" or embarrassing. The only exception would be negative comments correct any problematic, discriminatory comments made online, but even then, rather than attacking the person who made them, focusing on addressing the statement they made and explaining why it's wrong.
Hopefully, we can learn to step out of a state of perceived anonymity, and realize that the people that we are online are a deeper, truer reflection of ourselves. If we want to be honest with how good of a person we are, we must look at how we decide to treat others when we think nobody else is watching, and if we want to become better people, the first step is to better our behavior when we are in a state of being anonymous. Because in the end, what we do online inevitably will affect how we interact with people in our real lives - our social media personas and our personalities are in my opinion inseparable.
Therefore, let's take a step towards ending the casualized cyberbullying that is occurring across social media, and refrain from being negative or mean towards others this October. Here's my mantra: is what they're doing hurting me? If not, let them be, and keep on scrolling.
PS: for more on online personas and the effects of cyberbullying, I suggest you all to check out the video creator Vewn. She is one of my favorite artists and her work (while I would advise you to take caution before watching it) really gave me a deeper understanding of my own relationship with who I am online! Here's her channel if you'd like to check it out.