What we do online matters offline: Are you being cyberbullied?

Words: Phoebe Thomson
Image: Shaun Butler

Yesterday, I encountered a photo booth with a twist. This booth, at an art show in Kingston, promised to take your photograph and upload it to Facebook, as well as printing it out like a regular booth. But when it was uploaded, the photograph was plain white. I waited for it to print. Had something gone wrong?

No. It printed out my most recent private Facebook message.

I was surprised, embarrassed and a little bit shocked. How had it been so easy for somebody else to see what I had written? How invasive!

It was also strange to see something that I had quickly typed as a passing comment turned into a physical document. The experience really showed me that what we do on the internet is ‘real’, and that we must therefore be accountable for it. I was embarrassed enough by seeing what I had written, but if it had been offensive or vindictive, I would have really have seen the weight of my words.

The internet is an unfinished realm. Well, the world is unfinished, but the internet is governed in a far less rigid, far less structured way. We haven’t yet worked out the laws of this terrain.

Perhaps this is why people can be far crueller online than they ever would be in person. Although the internet has hardly any actual mass (apparently weighing the same as a strawberry[1]), it is in some ways a wilder, more extreme place than the ‘real world’, and can have a weighty influence on real life. An increasing number of suicides and incidences of self-harm are attributed to online bullying.

CyberBullying Image
One might argue that the internet is truly democratic, since online citizens are able to express their voices and access content that would otherwise be unavailable to them. But this would be to overlook the huge power of companies like Google, and would also negate the tyrannical nature of come online communities, in which bullies can wield great power over other members.

And this bullying seems to be on the increase, particularly amongst teens and pre-teens. ChildLine saw 4,507 cases of cyberbullying in 2012-13 – almost double the number (2,410) seen in 2011-2012.[2]

UK law does not have a legal definition of cyberbullying, although the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, supported an amendment to the criminal justice bill that would target new rules at combating internet bullies and trolls. Nevertheless, there are laws that can be applied to online cases: The Protection from Harassment Act 1997; Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994; Malicious Communications Act 1988; Communications Act 2003; and the Defamation Act 2013.

Some online content is offensive and illegal[3], and as we are adjusting to the internet, enforcement and regulation have increased. People have even been jailed for their online behaviour online; in 2009, Keeley Houghton was the first person to be jailed for cyberbullying in the UK.[4] What we do online matters offline.

We should try to inhabit this terrain as well as we can – to make the internet and the world a better place. We all must think: what would this look like if it was printed out on paper? How will it affect the ‘real world’?

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet/8865093/Internet-weighs-the-same-as-a-strawberry.html
[2] http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/jan/09/cyberbullying-childline-statistics-online-bullying
[3] http://safe.met.police.uk/internet_safety/consequences_and_the_law.html
[4] http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/aug/21/facebook-bullying-sentence-teenage-girl

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