Impersonal communication on the Internet fuels cyberbullying

In the old days, bullying used to consist of name calling or physical aggression from someone in a position of power over another, typically from a roughly similarly aged peer group. The bullying could be mild such as occasional name calling and having one’s books knocked down when walking in the hallway. This does not mean the effects of the bullying were mild but comparatively speaking, this is generally not regarded as significant as being thrown off a bicycle on the way home from school and being kicked and punched by a group of older children while others stand around, watch, and laugh.

As communications technology progressed, new forms of bullying emerged. One form was phone bullying in which an anonymous caller would call someone’s house and make mean and degrading comments to someone and/or that person’s family. This form of bullying increased the feeling of powerlessness because unlike more traditional forms of bullying, the victim did not know for sure who the offender was. The victim may have suspicions but often lacked definitive proof. Fortunately, phone bullying was vastly curtailed with the invention of caller ID.

While writing letters was largely replaced by phone conversations, phone conversations have largely been replaced by Internet communications (such as Facebook posts, Twitter posts, YouTube postings) and text messages (which often contain links to Internet posts). Along with this form of communication has come a new form of bullying known as cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is the use of the Internet and similar technologies (e.g., cell phones) to hurt others in a deliberate, repetitive, and hostile manner. Common examples include spreading false rumors, ridiculing comments, editing photographs of someone in an embarrassing and humiliating manner and posting them online, making anonymous threats, and disclosing highly personal information (such as private medical information).

What makes cyberbullying so different from other forms of bullying is that it exposes the victim to potentially millions of people with the push of the button as opposed to it being a localized event within one class or school. In addition, whereas other forms of bullying can be seen as temporary events in time, cyberbullying is often permanent in the sense that once something has been posted to the Internet there is usually always a trace of it that can be found (e.g., through archival caches) if it has been posted online long enough. Even if there is a way to permanently remove the offensive online content, the victim may initially perceive otherwise.

While cyberbullying is most common from one child to another, it sometimes occurs between adults, and can have deadly consequences. One example was the death of Tyler Clementi, 18, a freshman at Rutgers University who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in 2010, days after his romantic encounter with another man was recorded secretly by his roommate and streamed over the Internet.

While all of these examples of cyberbullying are wrong, harmful, and should be repudiated, I find that the most disgraceful form of cyberbullying comes in when it is directed from an adult to a child. This is because the adults should know better and because the adult is already in a much higher position of power with no need to resort to bullying. One famous case was that of Megan Meir, a teenager with major depressive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who had poor self-esteem due to being overweight. The mother of a friend allegedly created a MySpace account under a fake name and sent her demeaning messages such as those that said everyone hated her and that the world would be a better place without her. Twenty minutes after receiving one these messages over an Internet instant message service, she killed herself via hanging in a closet.

Of all of the cases of cyberbullying though, one of the most despicable is what happened to a cute, 9-year-old girl named Laura Edward. Laura, along with her mother, suffered from a deadly condition known as Huntington’s disease. Huntington’s disease is a genetic motor disorder that results in chorea and deterioration of mental functioning. Chorea is involuntary, irregular, dance-like movements of the arms, legs, and face. The condition normally affects young adults but in 6% of cases, people under age 21 can be affected.

One of Laura’s neighbors (Jennifer Petkov) got into a dispute with Laura’s grandmother over a birthday invitation and tensions escalated from there. To express her anger and hurt the family’s feelings, the neighbor posted pictures on the Internet of Laura and her (now) deceased mother in a skull and crossbones being embraced by the grim reaper. The pictures and original interview with Jennifer Petkov where she brazenly admits doing this with no remorse ignited can be seen in the embedded video. In addition to the cyberbullying, the neighbor would reportedly drive a truck with a coffin in it back and forth in front of the house to taunt the girl and her mother, opening the casket and gunning the engine.

No matter what kind of dispute two adults have, a child (let alone one who is dying or medically ill) should never be used as a pawn as part of that dispute. Adults need to act like adults and resolve problems between themselves without involving children in such a manner. Unfortunately, with society being so more and more focused on impersonal forms of communication, some people may lack the ability to resolve disputes through person to person interactions. But more impersonal communication is not the only factor leading to such incidents. At the end of the day, people need to follow common sense, a sense of moral decency, and the Golden Rule. Unfortunately, many people never develop these as guiding principles due to a faulty upbringing combined with immautrity.

Dominic A. Carone is a neuropsychologist who blogs at MedFriendly.com.

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