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Cyberbullying – a growing concern in a connected society

Megan Meier was just twelve years old when the events began that would ultimately lead to her death. Like many teenagers, Megan had accounts on common social networks, including MySpace, where she first met “Josh Evans”. Ostensibly a sixteen-year old boy, “Josh” was actually an accumulation of Sarah, an old friend of Megan’s, Sarah’s mother, Lori Drew, and Ashley, a teenage employee of Drew’s. Megan and “Josh” became online friends, and her family were pleased that she seemed generally happier. However, on Monday, 16th of October, 2006, “Josh” sent a message to Megan stating that he no longer wished to continue their friendship. “The world would be a better place without you”, he claimed. Some of the private messages Megan had sent during the course of their online acquaintanceship were posted publicly, and defamatory bulletins were written about her and shared with other members of the site.

Shortly after the friendship came to an end, Megan was found hanged in her bedroom closet.

What moves people to do such things? How big a problem is cyberbullying? And what, if anything, can be done about it?

Bullying is nothing new in our society. In schools and workplaces around the world, some individuals are victimised by people who gain self-validation by bringing others down. With the invention of the internet, however, bullying has taken on a whole new dimension. Now it doesn’t stop in the schoolyard or on the walk home from work; it carries on in your bedroom, sits on your sofa with you when you’re holding your smartphone, and even takes place in your absence, only to be discovered when you next log on.

But isn’t it different from “normal” bullying? Surely, some argue, it must be possible for people to just not have a social networking account, or to change their email address, or just to read a book in the evening instead of turning on the computer?

Perhaps. But in today’s society, technology is everywhere, and setting yourself apart from it can put you at a disadvantage both personally and professionally. For many people today, the line between online and offline life isn’t just blurred, it’s non-existent. Your smartphone alarm wakes you up, and you check your email before you get out of bed. On the way to work, your friends ping messages at you through social networking applications. At work, your inbox fills with business and personal messages. When you go home, you turn on your connected TV and watch it whilst absent-mindedly scrolling through your favourite websites. In this kind of world, cyberbullying isn’t confined to some other realm; it’s going everywhere with you, all the time. And cyberbullying is notoriously difficult to investigate; for one thing, legal jurisdiction in cybercrime is not always easily defined. Cyberbullies may go to great lengths to protect their online anonymity, using public computers and anonymous email resenders to ensure that their own name is not tied to any of the acts.

Carole Phillips is a trustee for BulliesOut, a charity that works to combat bullying both online and offline. She is also a child protection officer who teaches children about Internet safety. We asked her how large a problem cyberbullying really is in today’s society.

“The media attention given to the tragic cases such as the suicide of Hannah Smith and Daniel Perry is only the tip of the iceberg. Ask any school today and they will tell you that at the root cause of any falling out with friends or any bullying problem, you will soon uncover that [social networking sites] are at the centre of the dispute.

Young people today are known as digital natives because they have been raised on the emergence of technology and are very adept at getting to grips with anything new that would take the older generation a little longer to grasp. And therein lies the problem: unless we are professionals who work with young people or in the field in which social media is part of our world too, there has not been the same level of understanding of how social media works and impacts on young people’s lives. With no boundaries or little understanding about ‘how things work’, young people are playing in a lawless society online without the emotional capacity or maturity to deal with issues when things go wrong or an adult to steer them in the right direction.”

A sobering thought. So what can be done? Phillips elaborates:

“In order to move forward and equip people who use social media with the tools to deal with it when things get out of hand, adults such as educators, social workers, youth workers and most importantly parents, need to get to grips with exactly what their children are exposed to, instill levels of morality in them and remind young people over and over again that they should not act online in a way that they would not act in the real world. If you were made to say nasty, vile comments to someone’s face as opposed to someone online, I think you would think twice as you no longer have the veil of anonymity to hide behind.

Schools have a big role to play. Educate all staff on social media, not just ICT teachers or child protection officers; make it a whole school approach and learn how to recognise when things are not going well. Engage parents in training and work together with them and share the responsibility of working together to safeguard young people. Most importantly, teach young people about the consequences of using social media in a negative way as your digital footprint is there forever and you leave a trail behind you that you may not want people to see not only now, but in years to come, be it your parents, families and friends but also potential future employers. The message I would say to all users is act responsibility as you cannot use technology as a way to behave in a way you would not if it did not exist.”

It is evident that cyberbullying is a growing issue in today’s society. Anonymity online can be misused to threaten and victimise others, particularly young people who may spend a lot of time on the Internet and feel high levels of pressure to fit in with their peer group. As digital forensics professionals, the best we can do reactively is to ensure our investigations are thorough and adept. But as Phillips points out, the way to prevention is through education; people need to understand more about the repercussions of their own actions online, and know what to do if they or someone they know are feeling threatened by another party’s online behaviour.

If you are concerned about issues related to cyberbullying, the following organisations can help:

BulliesOut – http://www.bulliesout.com
CyberSmile – http://www.cybersmile.org

About scarforensicfocus

Scar de Courcier is an assistant editor at Forensic Focus.

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