On Cyberbullying

It occurred to me recently that in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) we seem to come across more cases of cyberbullying these days than real-world bullying. It shouldn’t be considered a trivial issue simply because it happens online. I’ve seen more than one case of a child winding up in hospital from an overdose following a cyberbullying incident.

My (admittedly anecdotal) impression is that the problem is getting worse. Possibly this may be due to the ever-evolving and increasing variety of ways that people can get online. The kids who use these new platforms via their computers, phones, iPods and XBoxes (give it another week, and they’ll be doing it through the fridge) are often more technically adept at social media than the parents, teachers and other adults who are supposed to be keeping an eye on what they’re doing. I consider myself pretty social media savvy. I use Twitter and blogs every day and have been for years. But even I keep coming across platforms mentioned by kids that I’ve never heard of (what the hell is Kik?) And if I’m struggling to keep pace, what hope for the more Luddite colleagues and parents I work with?

The trouble is, our kids may be the most technically-adept generation when it comes to social media, but in many cases they haven’t developed the emotional awareness to deal with some of the issues they may come across. If it’s a particularly vulnerable child, then this can be a recipe for disaster. If you include not just cyber-bullying but also online issues like pro-ana, or pro-self-harm sites, or online grooming, then there’s barely a day that goes by recently where we haven’t dealt with an issue of a child running into difficulties due to social media.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying social media can’t be helpful. Those of you who’ve read my writings will know that I’m a big advocate of the manner in which these platforms can be used as a force for good in mental health. I do also come across kids gaining benefits from social media. Resources such as Teen Depression Connect have been recommended to me by young people who found them beneficial to their recovery. Socially isolated teenagers have found the internet a lifeline that gives them someone to talk to when there’s nobody else. But the pitfalls are there too.

A site that seems to be especially problematic is Ask.fm, in which users invite others to submit questions to them, sometimes anonymously. People have misused it to send abusive messages. The site has been criticised for lacking ways to block users or to report abuse. When I was browsing it yesterday, it looks like blocking methods are now in place, but I’m told they’re pretty easy to get around. Worryingly, I’ve been told of cases where a young person has suddenly received hundreds of abusive messages in the space of a few hours on Ask.fm.

Then again, if we’re talking about someone receiving large volumes of abuse in a short space of time, perhaps some of us adults can’t preach to the kids. In my previous post I mentioned an online friend with an anxiety disorder who relapsed after being Twitterstormed by people who identify with intersectional feminism. Although most of the reactions I’ve received to that post have been broadly supportive, some people have expressed scepticism that the woman who got piled-on didn’t deserve it. So I think I’ll say a bit more about what happened.

A prominent feminist with a large following stated on Twitter that she felt the other person had made a comment in an article which was transphobic. This person then responded saying that it wasn’t actually a reference to transgender people, but she had amended it to avoid any confusion.

Frankly, the matter should have ended there. Unfortunately the person who challenged her didn’t do it by messaging her directly. She publicly “called out” the other person to her tens of thousands of Twitter followers. The result was a large, intense stream of hostile messages that continued for several hours. Days later, the recipient was still getting the occasional angry message from people who got the memo late.

I suspect most people don’t know how intimidating and upsetting a Twitterstorm can be until they’ve been Twitterstormed themselves. I have been – not by the intersectionalists, but by the fans of a TV celebrity. It leaves the recipient feeling victimised, targeted and angry. It’s probably also fair to say that the experience of a participant in a Twitterstorm is likely to be very different from that of the recipient. They may not feel they’re bullying anyone. They may feel they’re just sending a message expressing disagreement. However, the person on the other end may have received hundreds of such messages in the past hour, and is unlikely to see it in the same way.

If this was an attempt to persuade the woman in question to come over to a more intersectional way of thinking, it was a dismal failure. Not only did her anxiety disorder relapse, but she also came to the decision that she wanted nothing more to do with feminism because, “the Raping Patriarchy seem more interested in fairness than the sistahood.” (note to the irony-deficient: she was being sarcastic there.) She’s also now gone on a break from the Internet in order to safeguard her mental health.

But then it’s debatable how much of this is about winning people over. Intersectionality – the idea that different liberation movements should unite and understand how different forms of oppression intersect with each other – is in itself a very laudable aim. I fully agree with it. But I don’t think these intersectionalist Twitterstorms are actually prompted by the ideas and theories. I think they’re more the result of certain communication styles.

I’m sure I’ll get some angry disagreement for saying this, but some of the pile-ons by intersectionalists strike me as having more than a whiff of personal vendettas to them. Frequent targets seem to be figures who are perceived to be major figures in feminism or on the broader Left. The Times columnist Caitlin Moran, the Independent columnist Owen Jones and the New Statesman editor Helen Lewis get this particularly regularly; often for the most mind-meltingly trivial reasons. Frankly, it reeks of jealousy. As in, “Why did they get newspaper columns and book deals, and not me?”

I want to conclude on a positive suggestion, so I’ll recommend this post by the feminist and trade union activist Ellie Mae O’Hagan.

I will continue to voice disagreements with other feminists, but I will do so in a spirit of solidarity and respect, which recognises that ultimately our aims are shared.

I will not be rude. I will not be condescending. I will not turn debates into a kind of theatre by ensuring they are as public as possible.

I will be civil. I will be kind. I will approach debates remembering that all feminists want independence and equality, even if we disagree on how to get there. I will recognise that I don’t have all the answers myself.

In social media we’re dealing with an evolving technology. Our ideas of kindness and decency don’t so much need to evolve with it as much as we need to take the age-old concept of respectful disagreement and apply it to new media.

Bullying is wrong, whether in cyberspace or meatspace. We as adults need to role-model that, because if we don’t refrain from cyberbullying, how can we expect our children not to?

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