In the digital age, the advancement of social technologies has facilitated the growth of many innovative and beneficial products. However, access to such a large number of resources demands a certain level of responsibility. Every Internet user runs the risk of having his or her privacy breached, but a more personal danger is that of cyberbullying. The prevalence of this relatively new phenomenon is supported by studies conducted throughout the world – in 2000, a study from the University of New Hampshire showed that around 6% of people under the age of 18 have been harassed online. Today, according to the i-SAFE foundation, this statistic is well over 50% – with roughly the same amount as the antagonist. A number of these adolescents are also victims of cyberthreats and online sexual harassment. Obviously, cyberbullying is a necessary evil that comes with the territory of social media, but how does it compare to traditional bullying? The argument can be made that this new form of harassment is more harmful than its physical counterpart. Two main reasons that support this claim are the use of anonymity and the nature of information posted on the Internet.
Perhaps the crux of why cyberbullying is so rampant is the existence of anonymity. The person typing hateful words or spreading vicious rumors is faceless and nameless. This incentivizes the bully because he or she can find it easier to express their dislike for another individual without suffering consequences. Conventionally, the so-called “bully in the playground” runs the risk of getting told on by the victim or being caught by an authority figure. A case study of how anonymity enables bullying is evidenced through the suicide of a Long Island teen in 2010 where hateful messages were posted through the site “formspring.me,” even after her death. Formspring allows users to ask questions or post comments anonymously on another person’s profile. When the victim receives hateful messages, they rarely have the options of retaliation or avoidance. Traditionally, one could go into the comfort of one’s home to avoid the physical or verbal assault from a bully at school. In modern times, walls do not hamper text messages, email, and online social media. Repeated instances of this can lead to extreme isolation and alienation.
Aside from the concept of anonymity, cyberbullying becomes much worse when the future consequences are considered. On the Internet, it is almost impossible to erase what has already been done. A post on Facebook or a text message can be deleted, but between the time it is posted and the time it is gone, a third party can come and screenshot the evidence and distribute it. When the bullying goes beyond simply the aggressor and the victim, the effects become magnified and therefore more harmful. This sort of “viral bullying” is conducted through means such as email forwarding and word-of-mouth. Incidentally, a case at Princeton where a chat between two individuals was forwarded through a variety of listservs is a testament to how damaging cyberbullying can be for one’s reputation. The spread of defamatory material is a difficult problem to address as once it has begun, as it is nearly impossible to identify the original antagonist and thus no disciplinary action can be filed.