Cracking the code of cyberbullying

Laptops, cell-phones, and even watches. Nowadays just about anything can keep you connected to some form of social media. Unfortunately, along with the rise in online connectivity, the prevalence of cyberbullying has grown to become a reality for many youths across the globe. Dr. Konstanze Marx is a researcher at the Institute for German Language and the University of Mannheim who specializes in online communication. On Wednesday April 4th, 2018 she presented on her research in the area of cyberbullying to an audience of about 35 students and faculty members from a variety of departments at the University of Waterloo. Her presentation titled “Cyberbullying – A linguistic perspective”, hosted by the Waterloo Centre for German Studies, explored both the form and function of this online aggression.

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Even those who have not personally encountered cyberbullying may have some idea of what it entails: bullying, teasing, or demeaning, shifted in the digital realm (hence the cyber prefix). However, what is less commonly known are the plural ways that this bullying can take shape. Like in face-to-face encounters, one form involves the open degradation or diminution of an affected person; the difference here is that instead of a playground, this may take place on a social media wall or in a group message thread.

Another, inherently less-visible form of cyberbullying is made possible by the anonymizing capacity of online interaction. In covert cyberbullying the initiators (those doing the bullying) assume the identity of a victim to send messages, posts in threads, and otherwise take part in online interaction in order to damage the victim’s identity. Although covert cyberbullying may not have the direct impact of openly-posted insults, in an environment where stealing an identity can be as simple as finding a picture and making a new profile, it isn’t hard to see its potential for harm.

In either form, cyberbullying is a serious issue for those exposed to it. The victims, usually children and youths, often fear for their physical and social well being, which can impact their school performance and mental health. This effectiveness of cyberbullying as a form of aggression may have a lot to do with the nature of online communication. Unlike in face-to-face interaction, the bystanders who simply observe but do not intervene (lurkers in online discourses) are not immediately visible; with a swipe of your thumb you can simply scroll anonymously by a vicious insult, even after reading it. Furthermore, as a post or message in social media, instances of cyberbullying are generally editable, durable, and can spread quickly through digital communities. As a result, it is a particularly challenging mode of aggression to combat. After all, how can you intervene with aggressors and bystanders that you can’t even identify?

Thankfully, with the help of research like that performed by Dr. Marx, adults and youths have come together to found movements like Medien_Helden (“media heroes”) and ReThink. These two organizations focus on preventing cyberbullying, with the former providing media competency training for youths, and the latter being an app that gives users a second chance to alter or remove a potentially harmful social media post. Despite the challenges involved with addressing cyberbullying as it occurs, preventative measures like these may just have what it takes to combat cyberbullying, before it ever goes live.

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