Whilst there are many definitions out there, to me cyberbullying is any form of communication that is aimed at hurting or embarrassing a specific target. From my personal experience, it has been often used in an attempt by the bully to raise themselves above their target and/or discredit the target.
Working within the cybersecurity field, I often provide awareness training focused on ‘demystifying hackers,’ which focuses on identifying the three types of hackers (black hat, white hat, and grey hat) along with classifying the motivations between. I’m not sure who, but someone very cleverly grouped black hat hackers’ (i.e. malicious actors’) motivations into three groups: riches, reputation and ruins. When it comes to cyberbullying, I feel that those motivations hold true, as well. Cyberbullying is, to me, a form of manipulation, belittlement, and targeted abuse meant to cause harm and ultimately benefit the abuser in some way. That could include boosting their ego, but often, it’s directly linked to attempting to ruin the reputation of their target. From my experience, this has been the case for all forms of cyberbullying and online abuse that I have received either from someone I have never met or someone within my every day ‘in real life.’
What’s worse is that cyberbullying doesn’t stop when you’re physically away from the situation. It carries over into our personal lives and homes.
An interesting point that Maria Konnikova made in The New Yorker October 2015 was “In short, the picture that’s emerged suggests that the Internet has made bullying both harder to escape and harder to identify. It has also, perhaps, made bullies out of some of us who would otherwise not be. We are immersed in an online world in which consequences often go unseen—and that has made it easier to deceive ourselves about what we are doing. The first step to preventing bullying among adults, therefore, might be simple: introspection.”
Need a further detailed definition? According to KidsHealth.org, signs of cyberbullying vary, but they may include:
- being emotionally upset during or after using the Internet or the phone
- being very secretive or protective of one’s digital life
- withdrawal from family members, friends, and activities
- avoiding school or group gatherings
- slipping grades and “acting out” in anger at home
- changes in mood, behaviour, sleep, or appetite
- wanting to stop using the computer or cellphone
- being nervous or jumpy when getting an instant message, text, or email
- avoiding discussions about computer or cellphone activities
Problems arise when the technology that is supposed to bring people together is used instead to abuse others, pushing peers out of their social network into a world that is filled with loneliness, embarrassment, fear or shame. – prevnet.ca
That final piece, ‘loneliness, embarrassment, fear or shame’ is a sad truth of cyberbullying. It is rare the target of abuse feels empowered by the hatred, more often they will internalize it and may even feel it is their fault.
When asking a contact on Twitter why they felt cyberbullying seems to be increasing, they shared:
Personally, I think the rise [in cyber bullying] is accessibility, lack of oversight, and more time being spent detached from personal relationships which are instead done online are big factors. – Nathan McNulty
Whilst Nathan works with younger persons in schools, I think it carries through to many generations. In fact, a brilliant book by Johann Hari called Lost Connections highlights this exact issue – as a society, we’re shifting ever more apart and losing what makes us human, our being a part of something more.
Another person I spoke to who did not want to be named shared with me the tragic story of a situation they witnessed through an online community. One of the members was a victim of cyberbullying, and another person within this group purporting to be supportive caused further trauma.
“[she] liked to adopt the outcasts and one she attached herself to was a woman … who was actively suicidal and this [pretender] took it upon herself to say she could be her online therapist…” This support ultimately ended up with the victim attempting suicide, which my contact believes was directly caused by this pretender’s involvement.
“The [suicidal] woman didn’t die, but she made an attempt and almost did. When talking to the lady who said she could be a therapist, she responded with you try and help people but they just don’t want to get better she took no responsibility at all, and instead blamed the poor girl she was supposedly helping. It’s years ago and I still want to throw up and weep thinking about it.”
Our natural inclination when we see another person in pain is to reach out and try and help. But it’s important to recognize the limits of what one can do, when talking to someone online. Mental health professionals spend a great deal of time learning how to properly assess the risk of self-harm, how to deescalate these situations, and how to proactively intervene for those most at risk. These are not skills the average layperson can successfully execute…but they CAN be taught! If you are in the US, I highly suggest seeking out a Mental Health First Aid course, which is offered all around the country. These will give you the basic skills you need to provide meaningful support to those in crisis- without stepping into the role of clinician or medical provider. – Stefani Goerlich
When asking the community for their personal experience, I set up this survey to find if they:
- had been a victim of cyberbullying,
- had known the age of the offenders,
- had ever been a bully themselves,
- had thought about social media and parents in depth.
I had to limit the discussion because it’s such a massive and complex issue ,and whilst this is in no way a view of the complete picture, based on the 17 responses I received, I think that the results are still notable.
Again, it’s a very small sample group of respondents. However, from this group, 12 (66.67%) individuals said they had experienced cyberbullying, and for two of them (approx. 11.11%), it was either their child who experienced it ,or their experience was limited to in-person bullying.
There are a multitude of reasons why someone may be impacted more than another person, including times in your life where you were able to distance yourself enough from the situation. Both online and in-person bullying has had a massive impact on me, but it actually took years for me to recognize that. Only once I had removed myself from the situation did I start to work through the complexities that is the connection between how I think and how I feel.
Whilst I asked a few other questions within this survey and shared the complete results below, I want to highlight this final graph. Yes, this survey is limited in responses, and ultimately the respondents are likely going to be from similar age groups. However, I was surprised by the view of this graph – the numbers are:
From my personal experience both in physical and cyberbullying, I found the age of the offender doesn’t matter. I was beaten up in school at a very young age. My older sister told me that I would come home from school with black eyes and say I fell on someone’s heel or walked into a door handle. Without being told, I just felt that it was my fault, and I naturally tried to hide it.
Looking at the platforms that abusers use to perpetrate their cyberbullying, is there something further they should be doing?
Listen to those targeted. Don’t be arbitrary about enforcement, if it was deemed bad once continue enforcing the same way for everyone. Don’t belittle or dismissive of this attacked. – 0r3g0nV1x3n
Giant platforms require actual human involvement. Trying to solve everything with heuristics has led to a lot of problems; You can do some bulk work with that but in the end, pay people to do useful work. – Thecaffiend
From the above two quotes, I do agree. Platforms should provide a consistent and effective approach to tackling the massive issue of cyberbullying. However, that small word effective is much larger and more of a complex issue than it first seems.
I have worked with intelligence teams, and throughout my role in security, I have worked heavily in open-source intelligence. What I have found is that actually having humans review and make judgement calls on things can be more effective. But the variance in our judgement is massive. Hannah Fry discusses this within the criminal justice section in her book Hello World and looks at the benefits and trade-offs of using algorithms.
Working in OSINT, the things that you see also affect you. There have been investigations I have worked on that, to this day, remain with me. There are some images that you never forget. When it comes to incident response work, you start to feel a bit skeptical of the world. I personally enjoyed investigations. I love trying to figure out what happened – but whenever I am in that space, I take time to assess my own health. Many organizations don’t understand that toll, and worse, the employees might not have the resources to take that time to assess themselves.
Matthew Hunn, who did investigations for the police, shared the following:
Working on abuse cases you end up developing a certain level of emotional detachment, an element of gallows humour that friends and family may never understand. You have to create this shell in order to do your job day in day out. However, no matter how long you’ve done the job, there will eventually be a case that affects you. It’s at this stage that organisations need a support structure in place, and in most cases, it needs to be mandatory. Enforcing counselling or informal ‘chats’ outside the chain of command on a regular bases is crucial in maintaining the mental well-being of employees working on this type of content, and whilst they’re unlikely to thank-you for it 90% of the time, it’s that 10% which is the most important.
Online connectivity has only increased, and from what I have seen, it has become a natural part of not just adults’ but also children’s lives. Whilst I do believe we see the issue and we want to help, I also feel as if that the understanding of what to do is lacking. Social media platforms state that they do try, and we have seen a shift in society’s expectations towards platforms’ roles in regards to protecting members of their community. However, at this point, I do not believe they are capable of effectively managing the abuse seen on their platforms. I also do not think it can be handled solely by getting humans to read through postings either. There is no perfect solution, but I think that shifting to identifying this, raising awareness, creating supporting communities that others feel safe to ask for help along with the platforms taking responsibility and working at continuous improvement of this as a society is the only way forward.
Are you a victim of cyberbullying? Do you want to learn more? There are resources below that may be helpful. Looking to build a security plan for yourself and your loved ones. Please see my latest article here on personal security.
- Safe Internet advice centre
- Childnet International
- Safe Kids
- Tried-and-true ways to deal with a workplace bully
- How to handle being bullied as an adult
Survey Results Multiple Choice Options:
|2||Have you ever experienced cyberbullying?||Yes, I have experienced cyberbullying||12 (66.67%)|
|I have been a cyberbully||0 (0%)|
|No, I have never experienced cyberbullying||4 (22.22%)|
|3||If you have experienced cyberbullying, how much of an impact on your life has it had?||A great deal of impact||5 (33.33%)|
|A lot of impact||4 (26.67%)|
|A moderate amount of impact||4 (26.67%)|
|A little impact||1 (6.67%)|
|No impact at all||1 (6.67%)|
|4||Have you experienced cyberbullying in your workplace?||Yes, continuously||1 (5.88%)|
|Yes, previously||5 (29.41%)|
|Yes, once||1 (5.88%)|
|No, I have been the cyberbully||0 (0.00%)|
|No, I have not experienced bullying at work||10 (58.82%)|
|5||If you have been cyberbullied, do you know the age range of the person(s) harassing you?||12 and under||1 (10%)|
|6||Do you feel social media platforms are doing enough to protect vulnerable persons?||Yes||0 (0%)|
|No, but they’re not responsible||1 (5.56%)|
|No, but they’re getting better||5 (27.78%)|
|No, and they should be||10 (55.56%)|
Survey Results Detailed Questions
|7||In your opinion, what can social media platforms do?||Education, awareness, providing legitimate reporting structures.|
|Actually ban bad people.|
|Listen to those targeted. Don’t be arbitrary about enforcement, if it was deemed bad once continue enforcing the same way for everyone. Don’t belittle or dismissive of this attacked.|
|Giant platforms require actual human involvement. Trying to solve everything with heuristics has lead to a lot of problems; You can do some bulk work with that but in the end, pay people to do useful work.|
|Publish *very* clear guidelines of what is not acceptable behaviour. Encourage members to speak up, both in the forum to express that the behaviour is unacceptable and by filing complaints about what they see. Once they’ve done that if the behaviour doesn’t stop, advise that members refuse to interact with or engage with people who are “trolling” or being bullies.|
|Make interpretable and sane guidelines for interaction and then take (fairly applied) measures to remove or limit the reach of users on their platform who demonstrate intentional trolling/bullying behavior against other individual users and protected groups.|
|allow you to mute, close, or restrict comments / RT’s etc. allow bulk actions. be more even about suspending accounts that are harassing (it seems women who fight back get muted more often than those harassing people)|
|Social media platforms need to shift from “all opinions are valid and will be permitted” to a zero-tolerance policy for posts that encourage and incite hate, doxxing, and sock-puppet attacks.|
|I think one way social media platforms could do a little more to help prevent cyberbullying is adding a safe feature. When you have the safe feature on the social media platform detects and denies messages that can be perceived as harmful or hurtful to an individual.|
|Actually do something|
|Honestly, I don’t know|
|Have real humans review reports|
|More detailed muting, blocking and filtering. Not sure…|
|Give it’s users a mechanism to self manage. Like parental controls, flagging, verification of accounts — as in which human they belong to.|
|8||For younger persons, do you feel parents could do more to support them?||Some parents I think do a great job, but that comes to their existing relationship with the child. They need to establish a safe and open discussion – stop hiding behind fear and get over their egos.|
|A lot of this responsibility falls on the platforms, sadly all that parents can do is attempt to make younger people aware of the pitfalls that exist|
|Oh goodness yes. I think parents could stand to do a lot more in a lot of areas. The problem is that our society teaches children that once they become teenagers they are no longer supposed to lean on parents and encourages them to engage in antisocial behaviour. This makes it difficult for parents to know what is happening, and monitoring all online activity creates its own set of problems. :/ It’s a tough issue.|
|Yes. The number of times I’ve heard other parents say, “boys will be boys” regarding elementary school-age kids bullying, harassing, or assaulting other kids is staggering.|
|making sure they have a safe home where they are comfortable to talk about things|
|Honestly, I feel like parents aren’t prepared to support children who are involved in unfamiliar social media channels. I’m almost 50, and I’ve never used Snapchat, vine, or TikTok, so I have no idea what goes on there, including what type of cyberbullying threats are more prevalent there, unlike places where I’m active: primarily twitter and World of Warcraft.|
|I think parents need to be more involved In their children’s social media educating them on how to use social media and some of the dangers of social media.|
|Yes. Support them, not control them.|
|Yes! And parents need to be better educated.|
|Yes. Accept cyberbullying as valid.|
|Yes. It’s a parents job to protect children. Period.|
|9||Do you have an example of cyberbullying you have received?||Gossip from jealous persons, revenge porn, hateful lies that carry over in real life and cause financial impact and depression.|
|When I posted a picture of me in my US Army uniform and had my hijab on, people started sending death threats. They even started doxxing me and my former unit.|
|Every trans person I know has received some form of harassment. Unsolicited dick pics, transphobic comments. Etc.|
|At one point I was targeted in a tech forum that I had just joined. The bully determined that because the screen name I’d picked sounded “girly” I must be a girl and began taunting and harassing me. I stood up for myself and the bully continued. Even when you’re behind a computer screen that sort of thing is frightening and humiliating. Luckily for me, the rest of the forum opened a private multiperson chat and invited me but not the bully. We sat in there and talked until the bully went offline. I didn’t go back to that forum, sadly.|
|I’d rather not share specifics.|
|I went viral with a post and everyone was commenting on my body, looks, things they might do, it wasn’t bad.|
|I’m an older woman who’s been active in MMORPGs since the days of Ultima Online. I’m a raider, a tank, and a guild leader, which makes me a triple-threat primarily to twenty-something-year-old males. I’ve been sidelined and told to heal in favor of having a male player tank/co-tank a raid. I’ve been kicked out of guilds and blacklisted from raids for speaking up, because obviously a female player doesn’t know what she’s talking about. As much as I’d like to say it’s gotten better, GamerGate proves video gaming isn’t safe for women. If we’re not young, cute, single, flirty, and incompetent (presenting male players with the opportunity to “save” us), we’re targets.|
|Already wrote about it directly it was in online lupus groups at a lupus foundation and also on Facebook picked on, taunted, misquoted, falsely accused, maligned, stalked, etc.|
|Death threats, swatting.|
|Child supposed best friend was spreading sexual claims about them.|
|Death threats over fanfiction.|
|Was constantly harassed by an ex and her friends both in private chats and more public boards for a while.|
|10||Do you have an example of cyberbullying you have participated in?||N/A|
|I don’t *think* so. I really hope not. I express myself online and I know that interpreting what people say can be difficult but I hope that what I say and do never comes across in a bullying manner.|
|Not that I’m aware of.|
|Was never a cyberbully|
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor, and do not necessarily reflect those of Tripwire, Inc.