Tech bullies: Virtual acts real consequences
Published on April 1, 2014
DUBAI “I was scared to go to school. They said they wanted to hurt me and my brother, but I didn’t know who the texts were coming from. I didn’t know who to look out for.” Jordan*, a grade nine Dubai student, is just one of the countless victims of online attacks known as ‘cyber bullying’. Cyber bullying is when a child or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated or embarrassed through the use of the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones. And this new form of bullying is nothing to take lightly — children have killed other children due to this type of attack. In June 2003, an 11-year-old girl in Japan murdered her classmate because she was angry about messages posted about her on the Internet. Hundreds of other children and teens have committed suicide due to similar abuses. In fact, this dangerous type of bullying has contributed to the new term “bullycide”, namely when a child or teen commits suicide due to bullying.
And just because we are in the UAE doesn’t mean that we are safe. In fact, it can put kids even more at risk. “It’s huge,” says Joanne Jewel, School Counsellor at Dubai British School. “In an expat community such as Dubai, the negative emotional effects can be even more extreme. Kids move around a lot, they can have difficulties trusting people. They don’t have those relationships and friendships that were built over a long period of time. So when cyber bullying happens, kids feel even less able to trust people.” Cyber bullying can start as innocently as someone posting a photo that they don’t think is offensive. Someone will make a comment, and then more kids will chime in and it spirals. “It can start so innocently,” Jewel says. “Sometimes people will create a web page about themselves, such as a Facebook page, or another person will create a page for them. Then other kids see that as a medium to attack them on.” With almost every student walking around with a personal mobile that has Internet access, one can only imagine how quickly rumours can spread. “There was a blog at my school that these two kids put up. It listed all the people in the school and why they hated them. They said my friend should wear a paper bag over her face,” explains Danielle*, a Grade 10 student who recently changed schools due to the unstoppable online gossip.
“When you think about it, it’s very invasive, because before the Internet, you were pretty sure that when your kids were at home, they were safe. Unfortunately that’s not the case anymore. Even in their own bedrooms they aren’t completely safe,” Jewel explains. Quite often, the harmful psychological effects happen over a period of time and are easy for the child to mask. “The emotional impact in a child can lead to other harmful behaviour such as anorexia, depression, drinking and driving, and drugs,” says Clare Smart of Lifeworks, a counselling clinic in Dubai. “If you look at the studies, emotional and verbal bullying have a much greater effect on people than face-to-face physical bullying,” Jewel adds. Many parents might think that their child is safe because they have them as a ‘friend’ on Facebook, but it is not always so in black and white. “Kids have multiple accounts. Parents think they know what’s going on, which gives them a false sense of security so they get relaxed about it,” Jewel explains. “But the kids might not be doing it to deceive you. Lots of people have more than one e-mail address. Some kids have two Facebook accounts, one for their close friends and one for their acquaintances,” she adds.
Parents should be the ones a child goes to when they are feeling hurt. However, with cyber bullying, parents are often the one place kids avoid when things go wrong online. Why? Parents tend to overreact. Not understanding how the online social world works, kids feel they won’t understand. They also fear that they will only make things worse — calling the other parents, the school, blaming the victim or taking away Internet privileges. The other common reaction from parents is the exact opposite — parents shrug it off as insignificant, when in reality, it means the world to the person it is happening to. “Some people underestimate how much this means to a child. And sometimes adults don’t know what to do. This didn’t happen when we were kids. We don’t have a huge amount of knowledge or understanding about it,” Jewel explains.
So how can a parent take steps to ensure their child is safe? “Talk to them about it. Be honest with them. If you notice a change in your child’s behaviour, if you notice a change when they come down from their room, talk to them,” Jewel advises. Let the school know so that the guidance counsellor can keep an eye out for in-school bullying and for how your child is handling things. If the school doesn’t have a school counsellor, talk to a teacher.
Schools can be very effective brokers in working to stop and remedy cyber bullying situations by educating the students on cyber-ethics and Internet safety. Many schools hold anti-bullying weeks that are effective to help spread awareness. During these programmes they teach students Internet safety tips such as: ‘Don’t have friends on your Facebook that you don’t personally know,’ ‘Keep your privacy security high,’ ‘Remember that anything you put on the Internet — once it’s there, it’s there’. With 62 per cent of UK employers checking applicants’ Facebook pages before hiring — that’s good advice for everyone .
Another programme being held at schools around Dubai is Internet awareness classes for parents. Here, parents can learn how to de-code online lingo such as POS (‘Parent Over Shoulder’) — what a teen types when a parent steps into the room, translating roughly to ‘don’t say anything lewd’. But more importantly than that, parents get educated on how to talk to their children about the dangers of online use, how to be cautious and give your child freedom at the same time. If your child does happen to be the victim of an attack it is very important that you keep all the evidence. “Keep a copy. Print off the e-mail. Print off the Facebook message. And don’t retaliate,” Jewel advises. If the case is serious, go to the police and tell them what is going on.
Although there is no way to completely stop kids from being cruel to other kids, we can help prevent it by gaining awareness, speaking openly about the issue with our children, and encouraging schools to hold more anti-bullying workshops. “Don’t be afraid of technology,” Jewel says. “Educate yourself.”
* Student names have been changed to protect their identity
Types of attacks
1. Instant text messaging harassment
2. Stealing passwords and posting inappropriate things on personal sites
3. Blogs used to damage reputation or invade privacy
4. Web sites designed to insult others
5. Sending degrading or embarrassing pictures through e-mail and cell phones
6. Internet polling such as ‘Who’s Hot? Who’s Not?’
8. Sending malicious codes, viruses, spyware, hacking programmes, etc
10. Impersonation of the victim making it appear that he/she has said horrible things
1. Have you been a victim of Cyber bullying?
2. Do you know someone who is a cyberbully?
3. What should parents and schools do to protect children and teenagers from becoming victims of Cyber bullying?
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