Tangled web

An expert warns that cyberbullying is becoming accepted as normal behaviour, and that parents must take action

To adults discussing online privacy, cyberbullying might not be seen as problematic. In today’s virtual world where people post, share, comment and criticise, at times harshly, the social friction among young people risks slipping under the radar.

Some youngsters tease or joke online without realising that their actions constitute bullying. In some countries, there have been resulting cases of trauma and even suicide.

“Someone spread online that my friend was involved with drugs,” recent high school graduate Penkawin Vatanajang recalled. “But she really was not. My friend didn’t know what to do. I was trying to console her, telling her to calm down, that nobody was going to believe such a lie.”

Penkawin explained that what started the whole scenario was a tangled relationship problem. The groundless accusation may seem like a small issue, but it succeeded in tarnishing her friend’s reputation when the claim spread.

Things are not looking better for slightly older teenagers either. Kanda*, a university student in Bangkok, described a scenario she witnessed on an online community.

“A senior at my university posted on the faculty’s Facebook page calling one junior who stole her man a slut,” said Kanda. “The post also revealed the junior’s name and contact details. It was pretty scary.

“Word spread and they were both called in to meet the chancellor. I think they were suspended. But the thing was, they already had a 'slapfest' [physical altercation] before everything went online.”

Cyberbullying, as the name suggests, is a type of bullying being done online, in many cases between children, with the intention to hurt or humiliate others. The problem, though somewhat unknown to and not experienced by older generations, is very widespread in the world of youths.

Assist Prof Wimontip Musikaphan from the National Institute for Child and Family Development, Mahidol University.

Though they sometimes happen concurrently — or one happens to be a cause or effect of the other — cyberbullying is different from traditional or physical bullying. Cyberbullying mainly involves psychological attacks on the person. Aside from spreading claims or publicising private information, the attacks may include, but are not limited to, sending threatening messages and hate speech, ganging up on a person, touching up someone’s pictures in a degrading way, or by continuing to text someone repeatedly even though the person has asked the sender not to.

The “sharing” nature of the internet and social media makes cyberbullying very effective at hurting someone as everything can be spread and shared with a single click. The attack can be anonymous, and it is also away from adult eyes, which make punishment and accountability difficult. In some cases, it is almost too easy for some children to be cruel to each other because they know they can get away with it.

“Children do understand that it’s not OK,” said Assist Prof Wimontip Musikaphan from the National Institute for Child and Family Development, Mahidol University, during a recent seminar on children’s online privacy. “However, some do believe that people can do what they want — that they have a right to do it. Some view that cyberbullying is just a joke among children. But what is scary is that some actually think it’s a normal behaviour. Some say that it’s very common and that everyone does it anyway.”

As of now, there is no real indicator to determine if cyberbullying has contributed to deaths in Thailand, but this is not to say we should take the issue for granted. For adults who pass this issue off as normal child’s play that they should not interfere with, Dr Wimontip suggested they reconsider.

“This tells us that we’re instilling violence and viewing it as a common thing,” said Dr Wimontip. “When we accept that violent behaviour is normal, it’s like we are creating a kind of society for our children to grow up with violence to a point where they actually get used to it. It shouldn’t be like that.”

It is advised that families should start taking action when it comes to their children’s online behaviour. There is detection software available that can be used to monitor children’s use of words on the internet. However, Dr Wimontip explained that children can always come up with new slang that the software is not able to detect, rendering the programs useless. Even taking away mobile phones or banning the internet would not work.

“They will and can always find a way around it,” said Dr Wimontip.

It seems cyberbullying is not an activity that can be easily stopped. In the US and Japan, there have been high-profile cases of suicide after young victims received repeated online attacks from peers and strangers alike. Thai children, Dr Wimontip speculated, are considerably milder in their attacks, and most of the children’s families step in before cases escalate into something serious.

So to prevent cyberbullying from transgressing into life-threatening issues, Dr Wimontip suggested that building tolerance in children could be a solution. This includes strengthening their emotional capacity and educating them in proper use of the internet and social media.

“We can keep them in the house because danger is outside, but we can’t lock their lives inside forever. They have to be prepared for what’s out there,” said Dr Wimontip.

Since they are well aware of the issue, the younger generations have some insights to offer. As someone who has seen cyberbullying in action, Kanda believed this is not one person’s problem to conquer. It takes both adults and children to fight this battle together.

“Adults are handling this with their own standards and mindset. Whether this is due to their want to protect the children or whatever, they are forgetting that children are a part of this society and that they are involved in this problem, both directly and indirectly. Children should learn the consequences of their words and actions in the online world,” said the undergraduate.

It is unfortunate that we hear so little from children even though cyberbullying is a child-centred problem. Feeling as though they are excluded from fixing their own problem, some of the children and teenagers alike are expressing their eagerness to get involved in taking a stand against the issues surrounding them. Believing this problem should be solved right at the source, Prim*, a student from Rayong province, has a solution to offer her fellow peers.

“If there’s a problem, we should just talk it out. We don’t have to put it online and let the whole world know. It’s not something we have to tease, humiliate or defame each other with on social media,” said the high-schooler, who also added that adults, as spectators, just don’t know what really goes on in the teenage world.

* Names have been changed.

About the author

Writer: Melalin Mahavongtrakul