Bullying has existed for as long as creatures have had to stake out their place in any social system and before the civilised world started considering equal human rights was treated as a part of life that we just had to deal with.
Electronic bullying or cyberbullying is a form of harassment mainly associated with teenage children (as with non-electronic bullying) however it is a phenomenon affecting all ages and make the playground no different from the workplace or home. In developed countries where large percentages of the population (including young children) are connected electronically in some way, be it by mobile phone, social networking sites (including parent approved or “safe” sites), email and so on, electronic bullying is a growing problem with many of those affected stating that it is as bad or worse than physical bullying (BBC (2009)).
The difference between electronic and traditional bullying is usually that the bully can remain anonymous and therefore the act it extremely difficult to prevent from occurring and re-occurring without ceasing to use the electronic means (device, site, system) by which the subject is being bullied. I was raised a year at junior school (aged 8), making me significantly smaller and physically weaker than my classmates, and I was bullied as a result until I rejoined my age group. I remember those difficult times and how I looked forward to the end of the school day so I could escape; something that is not possible with electronic bullying and why many consider it worse. It is widely accepted that the ability to use electronic communications is extremely important in our everyday lives, especially in current or future workplaces; it is therefore unrealistic to simply cease using it because of electronic bullies except in extreme cases.
The responsibility to take action against electronic bullying ultimately lies with the influencers of society; government and regulatory bodies, health, education, parents and individuals themselves. With younger people it is more possible to use education, in the same way as traditional bullying, however with adults there needs to be a sufficient deterrent to tackle this problem. Providing a working deterrent is not an easy feat as it needs to operate in law by gathering evidence without being guilty of breaching privacy laws by the recording of all personal communications. Many countries, including the UK, use harassment and discrimination law as the basis of the legal deterrent for electronic bullying of any kind. A very specific problem, however, is the anonymity factor that people enjoy and their right to free speech, especially when considering online comments about a person.
A simple search of the UK politics blogs found comments such as “He should be hung drawn and quartered, as slowly as is possible to maximise his suffering.” (BBC (2009)) and whatever the subject you do not have to look far for similar anonymous comments posted all over the Internet. Taking this example, it is not easy to tell whether this would be considered as free speech or harassment from a simple read and in my opinion could the poster have been identified directly from the post, as with face to face communication, I doubt whether they would have felt comfortable making the statement at all, regardless or legal ramifications. If the poster’s ISP had taken their “fingerprint” (a nine digit identification code of the posting) (soon to be required in the UK) and the target of the comment were to deem this harassment, it would be possible for identification. It will be interesting to see how this identification possibility in the UK will affect vitriolic comments such as this once we see some case law.
Adams & McGrindle (2008) Pandora’s Box: Social & Professional Issues of the Information Age. University of Reading: Wiley.
Anti-Bullying Alliance (2010) Cyberbullying [Online]. Available from http://www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk/tackling_bullying_behaviour/themed_resources/cyberbullying.aspx (Accessed 28 Mar 2010).
BBC (2009) The Anonymous Bullies [Online]. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/technology/2009/11/the_anonymous_bullies.html (Accessed 28 Mar 2010).
Wikipedia (2009) Cyber-Bullying. [Online]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyber-bullying (Accessed 28 Mar 2010).