Digital Drama

Damsel Chan and I are dedicated to bringing you all kinds of posts on this blog, ranging from the geeky and nerdy to the serious. And this post will fall into the latter category, being on a topic a bit close to my heart. It’s not an easy thing to write about, but it’s very present and apparent right now.

There’s a degree of anonymity on the Internet, and it can be very appealing. You’re comfortable at your desk or on your sofa, in your home or place of employment, and there’s an unlimited range of information just a click or keystroke away. And you don’t have to give out your name or see anyone face to face if you don’t want to. All communication can easily be done through text. It’s easy.

And it can also be dangerous.

It’s no secret that bullies exist, be it on the school yard or in the next cubicle over, maybe even behind the closed door of the office down the hall. This is something that will likely never go away. But bullies have found a new place to live (or more appropriately, to hide), behind the cover of the online world.

Think it doesn’t exist?

Well, think again.

While school and office confrontation will always exist, there is something to be said about face to face interaction. A person sees the impact their words have on another, and that can result in accountability. But over the Internet, most communication happens solely in a text format. Take away that element of personal interaction, and what do you have? A world of easy to send insults, derogatory terms and harmful words, all – again – just a few keystrokes away.

Sticks and stones, right?

Wrong.

Words can and do hurt. So many conflicts, controversies, and even wars have come to be because of angry words or misunderstandings. Words can and do hurt, and while many physical injuries can and will heal, the pain inflicted by hateful words can result in scars.

How do I know all this? Not through research or media. I know this because not too long ago, I was a victim of this kind of bullying, more commonly referred to as cyberbullying. And if I’m honest with myself, I’m still dealing with it to this day.

It didn’t start online in high school for me, but I had my share of teasing and bullying in the school halls. I wasn’t a size two (or even an eight), I didn’t go out for any sports teams and I didn’t drive a sports car. I preferred reading to makeovers, relaxing on the sofa to tanning by the poolside, and staying up to chat online to any party that might have been going on. And somehow that placed a target directly on me. Fat, stupid, four-eyes, pig, cow, you name it, I was probably called it. Why? Well, I really couldn’t tell you. Looking back, I knew I was different. Maybe that was what did me in, being different and not wanting to be the same. I didn’t begrudge anyone’s choices, I just preferred to stay with my own. And I was kind, even as a teenager, when it was hard to be.

Still, though, the bullying continued.

Ironically, I think I was able to survive that time in my life because of the friends I made online. And in a way, I think that same  degree of anonymity helped me to open up. I didn’t have to worry about being called fat in the opening sentences of a conversation. Instead, I could talk to someone and if they liked what I had to say, then they would talk back. It was really as simple  as that – as simple as I had always wanted meeting people to be. I could talk and be listened to for what I was saying rather than for how I looked. And that made all the difference in the world.

Of course I made friends because of the Internet, some close and some acquaintances. My best friend (Kate, I’m looking at you) and I actually met through online communities, and I can’t imagine a time when I didn’t know her. And over time I developed what I had wanted – a group of friends who enjoyed the same things I did. I wasn’t a lone freak anymore or “that nerd girl” or anything along those lines. Instead, I had friends. And they called me by my name.

But don’t trick yourself into believing I had some kind of long distance fairytale. Sure, I met people, and yes I did fall in love (that didn’t work out, as things tend to do when you’re in your late teens), and yes I had my heart broken.

But I was also bullied again.

Online, the bullying came from a girl who I had once called a friend. We were very close (again, as close as two girls can be in their teenage years), and consequently I trusted her. I told her my secrets and fears and kept her confidences. But things changed very drastically (that’s another story for possibly another blog post), and she turned against me. Suddenly, all of my secrets and confidences and fears that I had entrusted to her were weapons she used against me. She took everything I had told her and used it to degrade and berate me, sending hateful text messages (Don’t you know everyone hates you? Why don’t you just kill yourself? and things along those lines) and emails as well as calling my phone at all hours of the night to wake me up and deliver the same abuse verbally. It went much further than these broad instances, but that’s enough to give you an idea. I was in my first year of college when this was at its worst, and there was nowhere to go. I didn’t feel that I could trust anyone, because look where trusting someone had gotten me. This girl went as far as to track down other friends of mine online and use twisted words to turn them against me.

I had nowhere to go, and I was scared.

Needless to say, I got past that. It came and went in stages, but I finally found my own strength and figured out who I could trust, and was able to get back on my feet again. I finished college, ventured back out into the world, and began trusting people again. It took time, and I still have moments where the fear clutches around my heart and I get scared I’m going to be betrayed or hurt again. But I was able to overcome it.

Cyberbullying is now starting earlier, and it’s unfortunately a common thing for young girls to go through. The Internet is easily accessible to teenagers through their homes, and while there are all kinds of warnings about online predators out there, so many teenagers are completely unsupervised. And that’s where cyberbullying can really start to become dangerous.  Anyone can argue we all have a right to free speech, but words can and do hurt.

I encourage anyone who uses the Internet to be careful of what they say, not just for their own safety but for the sake of others. Calling someone fat or ugly based upon their photos can be more painful than you think, and hateful messages do linger. It’s hard to get away from those things online because those messages never go away. They’re there to be accessed and brought up at any time, and while the hope might be that the person being attacked will just delete them and move on, it won’t always be that easy. Messages like that can impact the people they’re sent to and bring about greater problems than might have ever been intended by the person who wrote them. Bullies enjoy saying hurtful things to others to make themselves feel better, but the online world desensitizes us to that personal interaction. And that can do a lot of harm to a lot of people.

Remember that the definition of cyberbullying is “using information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated and hostile behavior by an individual or group that is intended to harm others” (Bill Besley) So when you’re online and someone throws an insult your way, instead of coming back and giving them one in return – ignore it. Delete it. Don’t be a part of the problem. This kind of online drama can go away, and it will make the Internet a safer, happier place for everyone.

Read more about cyberbullying at these sites:

Cyberbullying Research Center

Cyberbullying – National Crime Prevention Council

STOP Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying.org

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