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Cyberbullying is worse than bullying

12:04 AM March 16, 2016

Like many others, I experienced both being bullied and being the bully when I was a child. I remember one tumbang preso game in our neighborhood in which I was the taya (or what Americans might call the “it”). In this game, the taya must keep a large tin can standing until he manages to touch another player. What makes this a challenge is that the other players will keep hurling their slippers to fell the can —often hitting the taya in the process. As one of the youngest kids playing the game, I managed to end my turn only after so many slipper hits, jeers and taunts.

I don’t think that situation will ever happen again. And it’s not just because very few kids play tumbang preso these days, but also because bullying has taken a different form—on top of the “traditional” bullying that still goes on in schools. Just like many games children play nowadays, bullying has moved to cyberspace, to devastating effect.

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The case of Stephen Villena, the University of the Philippines Los Baños student who drew ire on social media for his seemingly disrespectful interrogation of presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte, is illustrative. Taken out of context, his line of questioning went viral, quickly eliciting outrage from many of the Davao mayor’s supporters. While others merely called out Villena for supposed lack of respect and poor choice of words, the backlash has reached a point where some are actually calling for his death, and the poor kid has reportedly received death threats.

Cyberbullying can actually be worse than bullying, and it is a moral imperative for us as a nation to seriously deal with this phenomenon as it can take a heavy toll on individuals—specially the youth—and our society.

First of all, what makes cyberbullying worse is that there is no place to hide. For kids who get bullied in school, bullying ends as soon as they’ve taken the ride home. But in cyberbullying, even at home, with our 24/7 Internet connectivity, victims can see hateful words as long as they are awake. You can say that they can simply deactivate their social media accounts, but in this age where the Internet means a lot of things—from communicating with friends to playing games—specially for young people, the mere act of having to deactivate one’s account is part of the damage done.

Secondly, with cyberbullying, your being bullied is exposed to so many people, making the burden of it even heavier. For obvious reasons, kids are embarrassed to tell their parents that they’re being bullied in school. But in cyberbullying all the insults hurled at them are exposed to all their social circles, never mind the general public. Surely, it can get too much for any person, let alone a teenager like Villena, to handle.

Finally, the nature of the Internet makes it much easier for people to say hurtful words —not just because they are protected by anonymity and distance, but because they don’t get to see the emotional toll they inflict on the people they’re bullying. In school, if someone is already crying and screaming, the bullies will (usually) stop the punches. The problem with the Internet, however, is not just that it has become so easy to hurt people, but that you don’t even realize that you’re hurting them.

* * *

By the time celebrities have become famous enough to earn a following of haters, they would have learned not to care. But we must ask ourselves about the morality of thrusting one kid’s mistake into the limelight and casting stones—even death threats—on him. This is not a question of politics, but of ethics: One can support Duterte and be outraged about the backlash Villena has received. One can rebuke Villena’s behavior and still protest the gross incommensurability of people’s reactions. As Duterte’s own campaign rightfully cautioned, we must “exercise civility, intelligence, decency and compassion when engaged in any discourse.”

Free speech, whether online or offline, is enshrined in our democracy and we need to give maximum tolerance to people’s ways of expressing themselves. But we need a serious conversation about how we can achieve a more civilized discourse in the Internet. One way could be to teach the ethics of social media as soon as kids start toying with iPads, mindful that cyberbullying happens in a smaller, but no less damaging, scale in schools. In this effort we need more inputs from various disciplines —from psychologists and sociologists to communications specialists and IT experts, among many others.

The media, by thrusting people into fame or notoriety, have a big share in this responsibility. I refer not just to the mass media but also to social media outfits and even individual users that can make an issue go viral and facilitate its reportage to media-at-large. We, too, can inflict emotional damage on the people we post about. As with the mass media, social media’s guiding principle must not be the sensationalist drive toward more page views, likes and shares, but a commitment to truth, fairness and justice.

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If it’s any consolation, the nature of viral hate is such that it moves on to the next victim in a matter of days. Even so, one day of experiencing hate is one day too many. With studies showing that victims of cyberbullying are at risk for depression, school and work underperformance, health problems, and increased likelihood to commit suicide, much is at stake in this issue.

Bullies we may not be, but neither can we afford to be mere spectators.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.

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TAGS: bullying, cyberbullying, Elections 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, social media, Stephen Villena
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