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Understanding Cyber Bullying – Notes for Digital Forensics Examiners

by Carole Phillips

The phenomenon of cyber bullying has received a significant amount of attention in the last decade and literature in this field has grown exponentially with advice and guidance on how to deal with cyber bullying. Yet the term cyber bullying did not exist in the public’s consciousness a decade ago and the advice on how to deal with such an intractable problem which is omnipresent and pervasive in its nature has been plentiful. Hinduja & Patchin (2008) described cyber bullying as “an unfortunate by-product of the joining of the emergence of electronic technology as a means of communication, which is relatively still only in its infancy and adolescent aggression which is played out in the virtual world for all to see”.

The days where young people played safely out in the streets or in their front garden has long gone and been replaced by the virtual playground. The ‘new’ playground takes place in young people’s bedrooms and on their Smartphones which has unlimited boundaries, is both secret and public and without constraints on how to behave towards each other. The cloak of anonymity in which young people can act affords users a sense of bravado that they would not necessarily feel if they acted in the same way in the ‘real’ world. Cyber bullying, as opposed to ‘traditional’ forms of bullying, reaches larger audiences in seconds and humiliates and emotionally impacts upon the victim for far longer. Despite the sad cases of young people taking their own lives due to incidences of cyber bullying, it is still carried out with little thought given to the victim’s well-being which impacts upon their mental health leading to feelings of low self-esteem, depression and a sense of isolation.

Whilst bullying has been seen as a normal part of growing up, cyber bullying and traditional forms of bullying leave scars which can never heal, and as young people are multi-platform users, the methods of bullying and the different technological devices available increase the way in which bullying can take place. One site which has received a lot of negative press has been Ask.fm. When I asked a student who was being bullied via this form of communication, why she opted to have messages posted anonymously (users have the option to know who the messages are from), she responded by saying, “I would rather be ‘in’ it than “out” of it as that way I know if they are writing about me, I am accepted”. This gives an insight in to how young people have a skewed impression of what friendships and relationships are about, and may not be as emotionally sound as we are led to believe.

The term ‘digital native, digital immigrant’ has been accredited to Marc Prensky, an educational consultant, who inferred that young people who were born in the 1980’s onwards, were “native speakers” of the digital language of the world in which they were born. Prensky further implied that the older generation of digital immigrants, however, were adept at learning and often surpassing this use, and embracing all aspects of technology. The older generation however are more equipped emotionally to deal with any issues they may encounter, whereas the younger generation have not yet developed the skills to deal with life’s problems, and as Dinah Boyd (2014), stated, the term “digital natives” is fraught with unintended consequences. The term inaccurately portrays young people as being prepared for the digital era, thus absolving our responsibilities in helping young people develop the necessary skills to engage critically and rationalise everything they encounter online.

As their existence in cyber space increases and attracts negative attention, young people appear to be oblivious to the consequences of any inappropriate behaviour and ignore any warnings about negative use. Whilst there are laws pertinent to acts of bullying online, such as harassment, stalking, making offensive remarks, or any acts of indecency via all forms of electronic communication, there appears to be a grey area in which acts of bullying are viewed online. Bullying is bullying whether it takes place in the real world or online and the perpetrator should be held accountable for their actions and dealt with in accordance with the law. The issue of prosecuting young people who participate in acts of cyber bullying is an intractable one, as whilst criminalising young people is not necessarily the answer, behaviour that would be deemed unacceptable in the real world is no different when carried out online in the virtual world. As so few cases of cyber bullying are prosecuted, it is difficult to see how the culture of such acts will change as no examples are being set regarding the type of behaviour online that is unacceptable in society.

The number of social media platforms in which young people engage and live their lives, inevitably exposes them to risks that are likely to cause them harm or get them into trouble. As cyber space expands and continues to grow, responsibility not only lies with professionals and educators in delivering programs aimed at educating ‘safe’ use of social media platforms, but also with parents knowing the current trends in technology. It cannot be assumed that parents automatically understand the dynamics of cyber bullying; it is all too simplistic to respond by telling victims of bullying to remove themselves from the source of bullying. An understanding of why cyber bullying takes place and ways to prevent it are equally as important as training and awareness programs. These should reflect the nature in which technology is used amongst the youth of today in order to safeguard and protect young people from harm online, which can last a lifetime offline.

Carole Phillips is a researcher in child protection, internet safety and cyber bullying and is a trustee of BulliesOut, an organisation which provides resources for people who have been affected by bullying. 

About scarforensicfocus

Scar de Courcier is an assistant editor at Forensic Focus.

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