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What is cyberbullying, and how can we prevent it?

Cases of cyberbullying have exponentially increased over the years, with the pandemic making it even worse. Lounge delves into the issue

There has been a rise in cyberbullying after the pandemic
There has been a rise in cyberbullying after the pandemic (Unsplash)

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We regularly see a lot of teenagers suffering from the infamous trend of trolling, which causes them anxiety and an inability to share their own thoughts. Since trolling doesn't follow any boundaries of social decorum and is largely by anonymous, unknown individuals, it's difficult for people to stand up against it. 

Trolling is one more form of cyberbullying, the nature of which has changed by leaps and bounds over the years. Right from taunting individuals on messenger groups with threats to remove them if they don't comply to causing real physical harm through infamous online games, cyberbullying can be a real threat. A lot of times, we see individuals who are coerced and exploited financially or sexually and forced to comply with the commands. While social media trolling is mostly indicated while referring to cyber bullying, the true extent of it can be extremely dangerous.

Cyberbullying can have devastating repercussions, which can even be life-threatening. It can lead to high levels of anxiety, fear, and avoidant or even risky behaviour that may involve drug or alcohol abuse. It can even lead to chronic depression and suicidal behaviour.

Teenagers, social outcasts or introverts are most at risk for cyberbullying, in short, any individual who struggles to share their opinion and takes to social media to communicate. While it is impossible to avoid or eliminate cyberbullying since we cannot control the behaviour and cascading effect of millions expressing opinions each second on social media. But what we can control is to decide how much we wish to let it impact us. Any bully feeds on the victim's fear. So once the fear is eliminated, the bully is maimed or remains powerless to cause hurt.

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Forms of cyberbullying that are prevalent include:

Flaming: Using hurtful/ vulgar language in emails, text messages, or chat rooms against an individual

Harassment: Sending hurtful, hateful, and/or threatening messages, blackmailing someone by threatening to use their information or content

Outing: Outing is when the bully publicly shares private messages, pictures, or other information about the victim on the internet. This is done without the victim's knowledge or consent

Cyberstalking: Following an individual online and sending emails or messages to scare, harm, or intimidate them

Exclusion: Deliberately excluding an individual from a group and posting malicious comments/messages about them

Impersonation/masquerading: Using a fake identity to damage an individual's reputation and publicly sharing real or false information about them

Trolling: Intentionally hurting an individual by posting insulting or inflammatory comments

Fraping: Using an individual's social networking accounts to post inappropriate content to ruin their reputation; a form of hacking

Some of the signs and symptoms of cyberbullying include:

1. They appear uneasy, nervous or scared about going to school or outside. Discomfort in situations they otherwise seemed okay with.

2. They are nervous or jumpy when texting or using social media, more so when you're in view of their device.

3. They seem upset or frustrated after going online or gaming. Classic example: throwing the device away or slamming it shut after use.

4. They seem unwilling to discuss or share information about their online accounts and activity.  Bullies often get away because we tend not to disclose or share when we are in trouble.

5. They show symptoms like unexplained weight loss or weight gain, headaches, stomach aches, or trouble eating. Bullying can cause physical symptoms too.

6. They have trouble sleeping at night or are sleepy during the day and seem tired or exhausted. 

7. They show a loss of interest in their favourite hobbies or activities and seem disengaged.

8. The child suddenly seems depressed or unwilling to socialise or even take care of themselves as they usually would.

9. They withdraw from close friends and family and actually spend more time alone, back on their gadgets.

10. They make passing statements about feeling hopeless or that they don't see a way out or can't seem to find a solution.

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A few ways to counter cyberbullying are as follows:

1. Start talking and having conversations about bullying: Sharing experiences can be incredibly powerful as it may help someone listening to muster up the courage to share their story or learn from yours to take a stand.

2. Protect passwords, devices and accounts carefully: Remember it takes just one error in judgement to cause a problem. There is no replacement for safe practices while using devices and ensuring that you do not share them with anyone. Also, make sure to log out of any publicly used devices.

3. Use privacy tools and settings: Every app has created privacy tools and settings for a safe user experience. These are already in place, take the trouble to read up about them and actually use them.

4. Keep information safe: Keep your personal information safe by not disclosing specific personal information, locations, or contact details online and be careful to understand that the person sharing these details with you on the other end may not be completely honest with you.

5. T-BIP: Think! Before I Post can be a good mantra to ensure you are posting only what you feel absolutely comfortable sharing. So, before you hit that post button, stop, verify and think, am I okay to put this out to the world? If yes, go right ahead. If not, edit or delete, and you're safe!

6. Follow a no-response policy with bullies: Make sure not to give in to demands no matter how easy or simple or basic the demand may seem, simply refusing to give in to a bully can be very rewarding. It does feel scary at first, but in the long run, it has a better payoff as the person trying to bully will realise they can't get anywhere.

7. Always report cyberbullies: The chances of them engaging in the same behaviour will reduce; they might actually desist from doing the same to someone else. Also, in case the person engaging in bullying is struggling with something, they may actually get the help needed.

8. Create safe spaces at home: Ensure that your kids can come and talk to you if they are victims of cyberbullying. Don't discard their devices or uninstall the app. Have conversations with them on how they can respond to bullying. Make sure they feel heard and not judged.

9. Aggression isn't the answer: Don’t tell your children to respond to bullies aggressively. Becoming a bully isn'tDon't the way to deal with bullies. There are constructive ways to respond to bullies, and parents must learn and teach those behaviours to their children.

10. Teach how to support: Teach your children to stand up to bullies when they see someone else getting bullied. Being confident and standing up for others teaches them not to get bullied in return.

Inputs from Dr Ajit Dandekar, senior consultant, Head of Psychiatry at Nanavati Max Super Speciality Hospital; Dr Wilona Annunciation, Consultant Psychiatrist & Founder, CATALYSTS; Dr Debmita Dutta, MBBS, MD, Parenting Consultant

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based therapist






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