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In this video, Professor Chris Kyriacou looks at how digital technology has changed the nature of bullying.

Bullying has been one of the great beneficiaries of the internet age. Before the internet, bullying was generally confined to the institution: the school or the workplace, and associated public spaces. Home, for the most-part, served as a refuge. Even beyond the home, the impact of bullying could be mediated, to a certain extent, by the presence of third parties, be they teachers, shopkeepers, strangers… There were bolt-holes to be found and sanctuary to be had.

But now our lives have become more complex: our physical interactions are augmented by a digital existence which knows none of the boundaries of our daily routine. The social forum of social media is, for many of us, an essential component of our personality, and an important means of engagement. Our social circles may rely heavily on our participation in those online spaces.

So when those social circles turn against us, the impact is immense, and any mediating influences are less apparent. Even worse, the bullying can be unremitting: constantly pushed to our phones. Our bolt-holes cease to be effective.

This is a very important detail to stress: our modern online communications have enabled prolonged and repeated victimization. Comments and images posted on the internet leave a near-permanent footprint; the marks of our bullying are there, potentially for all to see, anytime, anywhere (Kyriacou & Zuin, 2014). Any abuse being perpetrated has the potential to be both public and permanent. Given the importance ascribed to our digital footprint, the potential impact of such actions can seem overwhelming.

The bully in the bedroom

Such an impact is played out in real time in Channel 4’s 2015 television drama “Cyberbully”, in which Masie Williams plays Casey Jacobs: a character who is both a victim and a perpetrator of cyberbullying. As the drama unfolds we witness Casey’s ordeal as she falls for the attack of an online hacker who then takes over her social media accounts in a bid to cause distress and suffering to Casey as a form of retribution for hurtful comments Casey made to another student. At no point does the action leave the ‘safety’ of Casey’s bedroom.

Writing in the Guardian, Filipa Jodelka described the film in the following terms:

…weirdly [“Cyberbully”] is billed as factual, presumably on the basis that everything that unfolds has happened to someone, somewhere… [The makers] have got it right, on one condition: that it’s not viewed as a realistic depiction of cyberbullying at all, but as a kind of millennial ghost-in-the-machine spine-chiller instead, replete with traditional horror devices (Faustian pacts, anonymous ghouls, tests of morality), mild peril and creepy strings.

It’s true that real life lacks the stings, and maybe even some of the drama, of the Channel 4 film. But there are themes at play, and they reflect the motivations outlined by Professor Chris Kyriacou in our video for this step. There he identifies four main motives for cyberbullying:

  • Fun – Comedy so often relies on a fall-guy; a victim. Great amusement can be extracted at the expense of others.
  • Interest – It’s fascinating to explore what you can and can’t get away with: the bullying verges upon scientific study.
  • Pain – Some people just really enjoy the ability they have to cause distress to another person.
  • Moral revenge – The bully is acting in retribution for something the victim has done. In other words, the bullying was deserved. As the vigilante of “Cyberbully” puts it: “You think you’re the victim? You’re not the victim you’re the cyber bully!”

With these motivations in mind, we can perhaps start to see how aspects of cyberbullying can become normalised: the ‘It’s completely normal – everybody does it’ mentality. As we saw in the last step, all of us can all-too-easily fall into bullying behaviour, especially online where the technology provides a distancing effect, masking the brutality of our actions, and the sense of anonymity can give us a degree of invulnerability. Unsurprising, then, that we now live with the sobering statistic that 50% of adolescents will experience online bullying.


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