Cyber-bullying: Cruel and not cool

Published: Nov 29, 2013, 07:15 IST | Fatema Pittalwala |

Bullies have always existed, and in the age of technology, their methods have only become more devious. As cases of online bullying grow, we get to grips with its causes and effects

Countless children and even adults have known the terror of being singled out and heckled, manhandled, even injured, by the schoolyard or neighbourhood bullies. While home was generally the safe refuge from this menace, it is no longer so. The digital age means that today’s bully can follow a child home, or anywhere there is an internet connection. It is the age of the cyber-bully, and it is a frightening one.

Illustration/Amit Bandre

No boundaries
According to psychiatrist Dr Parul Tank, people don’t realize that cyber-bullying is different from real-life bullying; the abuser is a faceless stalker, which makes it harder for some to handle. She says, “The emotional outcome of cyber-bullying is similar to that of real-life bullying. The difference is that there is no escape from cyber-bullying; it can happen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Media professor Arpita Ghosh feels that validation from external sources is extremely important for individuals. Pic/Sameer Markande

And cyber-bullying messages can be posted anonymously and distributed to a very wide audience, in a matter of minutes. When you are bullied by someone during a face-to-face interaction, you can immediately understand the seriousness of the issue and react accordingly. Online bullying borders on cruelty. The victims in their most vulnerable stage are left to be judged by the world. Many times, deleting inappropriate messages and pictures after posting, and tracing the source, is very difficult.”

Consulting psychiatrist Dr Hozefa Bhinderwala comes across 4-5 bullying cases, every month

Need attention
Uday Vaidya, founder of Munee Consultants, an organization dealing with behaviour counselling, says, “Online bullying is a typical adolescent problem. With changing lifestyle trends among families and individuals, communication between individuals has also changed. Children are attracted to social networking sites because online, they receive the attention that they miss in real life.

NGO Aasra’s director Thomas Johnson says suicide is a result of multiple causes. Pic/Sameer Markande

Most of the time the attention is from the opposite sex and from a stranger. Today, a child constantly needs to be reminded that he/she is loved and cared for. Children are increasingly insecure. With their parents’ busy lifestyle, children may not always receive validation from their folks. Hence they look for affection from the second best thing available to them, ie, the internet.”

Dr Parul Tank urges parents to watch out for signs such as withdrawal among children. Pic/Sameer Markande

Visible changes
Dr Tank adds, “If a child is using the internet excessively, and quickly shuts the laptop or hides the screen when someone someone enters the room, he or she might be doing something you may not approve of. Emotional withdrawal, irregular sleep patterns and other behavioural changes are some signs that tell you there is something going on in a child’s life. Parents have to be sensitive towards such problems and they should make it a habit to listen to their children without immediately judging or interrupting them.”

Counselling consultant Uday Vaidya feels that cyber-bullying is a teenage issue

Agreeing with this, consulting psychiatrist Dr Hozefa Bhinderwala says, “When a child is bullied online, they usually feel alone and helpless. There are no bystanders to witness the bullying and when it is online, it is extremely personal and confidential, and sometimes people take drastic steps to deal with it. Many times, parents are ignorant about their child’s online life. We need to take serious steps to curb cyber-bullying and start being proactive.

Curriculum developer Reema Parekh wants schools to have online etiquette workshops. Pic/Nimesh Dave

Online etiquette should be a part of the school curriculum, as the digital age is here to stay. I have come across cases where bullying is not only done over internet websites, but also over mobile social networking apps, and I come across about five such cases every month. The platform for bullying is vast and not concentrated in any particular website. As there is a legal age for driving and drinking, there has to be a legal age for having accounts on the internet. Until the child is of age, they should share the account with their parents and there should be transparency between them.”

Numbers game
Media professor Arpita Ghosh says, “When it comes to online media, especially social networking sites, we don’t use them constructively. Today for individuals, validation from external sources is extremely important. Posting photos, counting the number of likes, checking and responding to comments are some of the things that give a high or low to any child. We feel that the online world is a safe medium to share our thoughts.

But we have to remember that we are hiding behind a computer screen and the same goes for the other person. I agree that schools have counsellors, but how interested are they, really, in a child’s problem? It is a must for schools and parents to be more attentive towards children’s online activities. I remember my nephew had a spat with his friend. He was so angry; he logged onto a popular social networking website, and included his fight in his status update.

Now, that status was there for a while, for all of his 300 or so friends to view, including the one he fought with. I don’t understand the need people feel to pour out their entire anger and frustration over the internet. Individuals need to be confident and they should not be insecure. The fear of rejection and being ridiculed is something kids, and at times even adults, can’t handle.”

Ghosh continues, “Being adventurous is one thing, but I don’t know why kids today, in spite of being well aware, are foolish enough to trust strangers online. A while ago, a girl befriended a boy and went to a Santacruz hotel, where she was found dead. It is sad to hear such news, but then again, why should you go with a stranger and believe that you could be safe? Kids are smart, but they need to be smarter.”

Multiple causes
Thomas Johnson, director of the NGO Aasra, a crisis intervention centre for the distressed and suicidal people, feels that one should understand today’s social situation before coming to any conclusion regarding the cause and effect of suicide cases. He says, “Today, children are dependent more on technology than on person-to-person interaction. If they have a problem, kids prefer talking about it through posts and tweets, rather than to their parents and friends in real life.

Hence, if anything negative is said about them on a social networking site or on a chat, they take it to heart, as this interaction holds a lot of value for them. When a child commits suicide, it cannot be ascribed to a particular incident or person. It could be a result of multiple things bothering a child. A child needs a strong support system, which should include the child’s parents, friends, family and anyone whom he/she could talk to. If a child is weak and unable to cope, they will take the plunge. Bullying is nothing but a form of aggression. Not only kids, but even adults today express their frustration online.”

Police awareness
Madhuri More, assistant police inspector at the cyber crime cell of the Mumbai Police, says, “When we are online, we rarely realize that we have logged onto the World Wide Web”, she says, with the emphasis on ‘world’. She continues, “Not only children and teenagers, but sometimes even adults act irresponsibly. Everything depends on a single click. We have had cases where people accept friend requests from strangers and then they complain about stalking and harassment.

I agree that all sections of the police don’t understand the gravity of cyber bullying or any cyber crimes. But the cyber investigation unit is trying their best to make sure that all police officers understand the complaint and register it accordingly. Sometimes, because of lack of awareness, they dismiss the complainant and say, ‘account delete kar do’ (delete your account). This should not happen and that is why we conduct week-long cyber crime awareness workshops for Mumbai police. Regardless of rank, department or anything else, all police personnel attend this workshop.”

Simple solutions
Reema Parekh, a school curriculum developer, says, “Bullying is something that you cannot completely put a stop to. But during teenage years, parents and children should try hard to have better communication and relationship. Children should be able to talk to their parents about things going on in their life, and parents should be able to detect the signs that tell them something is up with their child. Children are very much influenced by the media; hence their exposure to these things should be monitored.

Also there have to be stricter laws for bullying, and proper action needs to be taken against bullies. Social networking sites should have stricter rules regarding age requirements for having an account online. Schools should also educate their children about bullying and its effects. To understand the depths of cyber-bullying, awareness should be created among teachers, parents and children. It all begins at home and in school.”

Online safety tips
>> Never reveal personally-identifiable information online
>> Never share your password with other people (except for your parents)
>> Never arrange meetings with strangers
>> Don’t believe everything you read or see online
>> Don’t download files or software without your parents’ permission
>> Don’t respond to inappropriate messages or emails
>> Don’t post inappropriate content
>> Be wary of personal questions from strangers
>> Don’t be bullied into fights
>> Don’t use adult sites
>> Understand that what you put online will be there forever
>> Source:

Recent case
On November 19, a 14-year-old girl committed suicide by hanging because she was harassed online by a 16-year-old boy. The minor took the drastic step after she was tormented and stalked by a boy who posted offensive material on her social networking account. A resident of Iraniwadi in Kandivli (W), the Std IX student and her father had approached the local police station with his daughter to lodge a complaint, fearing that the boy would harm her. The father alleged that the police had shown no interest in the matter, and they returned without a complaint being filed. 

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