Dealing with online bullies is easy

By Greg Stevens on January 8th, 2013

Cyberbullying is not the same as face-to-face bullying, any more than cyber-sex is the same as face-to-whatever sex. Yes, cyber-bullying is bad, cyber-bullying is hurtful, our society should fight against cyber-bullying as much as possible. But there’s an important difference between cyber-bullying and “old-fashioned” bullying: you can choose to turn the damn computer off.

In the effort to jump on the anti-cyberbullying bandwagon, the website stopbullying.gov puts up some introductory material to teach people about what cyber-bullying is. They define it as “bullying that takes place using electronic technology”, which is fairly straightforward. They warn that “kids who are being cyberbullied are often bullied in person as well”, which is true.

Moreover, I agree that it is a very serious problem. In-person bullying is a horror that you cannot escape, especially if it happens in a classroom or workplace, or any common area where you are obligated to spend time in your life. However, the website then says: “kids who are cyber-bullied have a harder time getting away from the behaviour.”

This strikes me as dangerous nonsense. It is predicated on the idea that kids must spend time on Facebook. It is predicated on the idea that kids can’t change their phone number. It is predicated on the idea that they can’t simply step away from their social media platforms and devices. The website says: “Cyber-bullying can happen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and reach a kid even when he or she is alone.”

And this is where this well-intentioned website goes off the rails. Cyber-bullying is not an airborne virus or a psychic mind-meld. A child (or adult, let’s be honest) has complete control of whether or not he sees Facebook posts or receives emails or text messages. It can literally be controlled with the flip of a switch.

Please allow me to be very clear on one point: I am not saying that children should have to avoid Facebook or change their phone number in order to get away from cyber-bullying. Cyber-bullying and trolling are wrong. It should be prevented as much as possible. Schools and other organisations should educate people about the dangers of it. The people who do it should be severely punished. Society should rally against cyber-bullying, just as they should rally against any harmful and nasty behavior.

But let’s not be dishonest in an effort to raise awareness about the problem, or hysterical about the ability of cyber-bullies to ruin lives.

Over the last two decades of being online, I’ve dealt with my own share of nuisances and jerks. I’ve been emailed threats and insults. I’ve had embarrassing pictures of me emailed to my employer. I’ve seen public conversations speculating about my health and sexual habits. One acquaintance of mine on Facebook recently told me that a complete stranger emailed him a pages-long email entitled “10 reasons to hate Greg Stevens”.

I declined his offer to share the contents with me.

I’m nobody special. The number of people who care about “10 reasons to hate Greg Stevens” is vanishingly small. But that is my point: this type of thing happens to everyone and anyone, all of the time. We live in the world where there are people who do inexplicable mean things. People say nasty things online, people say nasty things at bars, people say nasty things at the workplace.

Sometimes it escalates to the level of pranks. Sometimes it escalates to the level of violence. It is never nice, it is never acceptable, and we should always work together as a community to prevent it and educate people about the dangers of it.

But face-to-face, “IRL” bullying is the real horror. When you have to go to sixth period math class with a person who will continually torment you, then you cannot get away from it. If teachers are not supportive, the pain and embarrassment can be even worse. When you have to work with a colleague who insults you and teases you and plays pranks on you at every turn, it is exhausting and depressing. It can even be emotionally crippling.

What can you do? Quit your job, and lose your income? Rarely. In most cases, you cannot get away from it. If you don’t feel you have anywhere to turn within the company to make it stop, it can feel unbearable.

If you are mortally embarrassed by a picture that appears on Facebook, it hurts. Especially if you are a young person: it feels like the world is ending. It feels like “everyone in the world” knows. But as adults, it is our responsibility to give children, and more vulnerable grown-ups, some perspective. It is our duty to do the right thing, and tell children two very important things:

1) not everyone in the world knows or cares about your embarrassing Facebook photos
2) you can take a break from Facebook for a while.

(Naturally, I’m using Facebook as an example, but this can just as easily be applied to any other form of social media, including text messaging on the telephone.)

That’s the way I’ve handled it. I’ve gone through periods where a person with a grudge against me posted personal information about me online, and one time someone even broke into my email account and tried impersonating me to my friends and relatives to both embarrass me and get information about me. It was humiliating. (He emailed my mum.)

And, briefly, I did feel like every person I knew, and possibly every person walking down the street, had seen and possibly believed the terrible things this person had said about be.

So, after re-securing my passwords for my accounts, I simply turned the computer off. I did other things with my spare time. I learned that there was plenty to do in my life that didn’t require me to sit in front of a computer, obsessing about what some person wrote to me or posted about me.

More importantly, I learned that I could go about my day-to-day existence without meeting a single person who had read any of those “awful things” that had been said about me online.

And when I turned the computer on again, several months later, it had all gone away. Nobody cared, nobody was talking about it, it simply didn’t matter. I was able to escape the situation by changing my mindset, and dragging myself away from the computer for a while.

Some people might say: “Oh, that’s fine for you, because you are an adult, and you can cope more rationally and more easily than a teenager, or a person who is more emotionally fragile, or a public figure!” And that’s probably true, but that’s why someone need to sit these kids down and explain this to them.

It is both dangerous and irresponsible for us to be selling the fiction that it is “impossible to get away from” cyber-bullying. If you are a child and you think leaving Facebook or stopping the use of text messages is not an option, that is a failure of parenting.

Cyberbullying and face-to-face bullying have many similarities. Both are hurtful. Both can lead to terrible, terrible outcomes, as we all know from stories that have appeared in the news. In both cases, whether you are a child or an adult, you should try to find someone of authority to see if they can make it stop.

In both cases, if there are threats of violence, then it should be reported to the police. In both cases, it is society’s responsibility to prevent it or punish the people who do it.

But we also need to tell the truth: real-life, in-person bullying at school or in the workplace is much, much worse, because it exists where you live. It exists in a way that you cannot get away from it. Not least because, as much as it can feel like it sometimes, Facebook is not essential to the healthy functioning of your life. Really, it isn’t.

Cyberbullying, on the other hand, you can get away from: at the flip of a switch. Try it. You might even discover that your life is more fun and more rewarding than it ever was before you discovered Twitter and Facebook.