The fact that the internet and social media are so easily accessible provides opportunities for people to send threats, extort, and bully others online while remaining anonymous themselves. In this article, I will discuss this new phenomenon by highlighting two cases of cyberbullying that received international media coverage.
Globalization, the Internet and cyberbullying
In the past, people would have to physically deliver a message to someone in a distant part of the world. Today, almost everything happens at the push of a button. It took Christopher Columbus months to “discover” the New World, but now it takes only a few hours on a plane to fly from Europe to the Americas. The world is changing; it is no longer as large and expansive as it once was. Globalization through technological advances has made the world smaller and more interconnected. It has led to a new world, in which the internet is used for both good and bad.
The internet, which makes all kinds of communication possible and keeps the world connected, is one of the most important drivers of globalization. One positive aspect of this is that the internet’s infrastructure can be used in many ways. Online shopping, for example, following classes, or connecting with a relative on the other side of the globe. However, everything that can be used positively, can also be used negatively. One of the downsides of the digital world and its anonymous accessibility is people using the internet to make other people's lives difficult. This phenomenon is called cyberbullying.
One of the downsides of the digital world and its anonymous accessibility is people using the internet to make other people's lives difficult.
In this article, I am going to ask the question whether the coverage of cyberbullying on the internet and in the media leads to a higher rate of cyberbullying in practice, i.e. do cyberbullying cases that are covered by the media, or that go viral, increase the copycat effect? In doing so, I will first present a short overview of cyberbullying. Then I analyze two cases of cyberbullying, one is fictional and the other is not, that received widespread international media coverage.
What is cyberbullying, exactly?
According to many authors, cyberbullying refers to bullying that involves the usage of an internet platform while using smart phones, computers, or other electronic devices to intentionally and repeatedly bring physical and/or emotional harm to the victim by an individual or a group of people (see Patchin and Hinduja, 2006; Shariff and Gouin, 2005; Olweus, 1993; Willard, 2006).
There are some misconceptions about cyberbullying. The first concerns the ages at which cyberbullying takes place. To be clear, in this article I discuss cyberbullying, and not cyber harassment or cyberstalking. The difference between these terms is that, according to Aftab (2011), cyberbullying occurs between minors, whereas when an adult is involved, the behavior can be labeled cyber harassment or cyberstalking.
The second misconception is that cyberbullying can be both direct and indirect. Aftab (2011) characterizes direct cyberbullying as sending messages directly to the victim. Indirect cyberbullying, also known as cyberbullying by proxy, is getting someone else to do the dirty work for you (Aftab, 2011). Aftab argues that cyberbullying by proxy is more dangerous, because adults can become involved in the harassment. However, as I've just stated, based on Aftab (ibid), I see cyberbullying as something occurring exclusively between minors, making indirect cyberbullying perhaps more closely related to cyber harassment than actual bullying.
Cyberbullying vs traditional bullying
According to Kowalski, Limber and Agatson (2012), cyberbullying has three primary characteristics in common with traditional bullying. The first is that there is aggressive behavior involved. Second, the behavior is repeated. The final characteristic is that there is a power imbalance between the victim and the bully. However, the power imbalance is, to some extent, different with the use of electronic media than it is in a face-to-face interaction. Some theories suggest that the power imbalance in cyberbullying is far worse than most people believe.
Cyberbullying entails the power of being anonymous, the power of assuming a false identity, the power of spreading rumors and lying to a wide audience, and the power of 24/7 accessibility to harass a victim anywhere and anytime.
According to Dooley et al. (2009) and Van de Bosch and Cleemput (2009), cyberbullying entails the power of being anonymous, the power of assuming a false identity, the power of spreading rumors and lying to a wide audience, and the power of 24/7 accessibility to harass a victim anywhere and anytime. Belsey (2006) refers to cyberbullying as a “cowardly form of bullying,” on account of people hiding behind pseudonyms on the internet in order to bully their victims.
The power of anonymity, which is supported by electronic communication, can make people behave in a certain way, saying and doing things they otherwise would not. This is also known as disinhibition (Mason, 2008; Suler, 2004). According to Kowalski, Limber and Agatson (2012), disinhibition is the reason why cyberbullying contains such a strong threatening factor. Thus, remarkably, it is the anonymity that allows some individuals to bully at all. On the other hand, Willard (2006, 47) claims that this anonymity is more a false appearance than reality: “people are not totally invisible or anonymous when they use information and communication technologies. In most cases, they leave ‘cyber footprints’ wherever they go.”
Modalities for cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is a behavior that can occur through multiple modalities. The most common modalities used for cyberbullying today are social networking sites (Kowalski, Limber and Agatson, 2012). With the push of a button, bullies can reach a wide audience by sending angry or threatening messages to their victims, or by sending compromising photos or videos of their victims to other people.
Teens are more often confronted with cyberbullying than the elderly. According to the Dutch Central Buro of Statistics (CBS), in 2012, 10.3% of 15 to 18-year-olds had been confronted with one or more types of cyberbullying, compared to less than 1 percent of the over-65s (CBS, 2013). Teens make more use of the internet, and are more active on social media. Almost all 15 to 18-year-olds use social media, while among the over-65s only one in six can be found on social media (CBS, 2013). In 2015, CBS repeated the study, and concluded that cyberbullying has increased for 15 to 18-year-olds to 11.4% (CBS, 2016).
In the space of five years, cyberbullying among children has increased by 88%.
According to an article in The Guardian, The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) conducted research about children being victims of cyberbullying. They concluded that, in the space of five years, cyberbullying among children has increased by 88%. In 2015/2016, there were 4,541 victims of online bullying, compared to 2,410 victims in 2011/2012 (The Guardian, 2016).
The role of the media
Not only has the number of incidents of cyberbullying increased in the past few years, but the number of news stories on cyberbullying has more than doubled as well. According to research by the Lexis/Nexis database in the United States, in 2010, there were 1,930 headlines about bullying. That is 1,223 more than in 2009 (Kowalski, Limber and Agatson, 2012). Coleman (2004) believes the media play a huge role in maintaining the copycat effect. According to Coleman (2004), the copycat effect is the effect that occurs when an act has been carried out in response to media coverage of a previous similar action. People are, as it were, inspired by the actions of others that are highlighted in the media, and therefore display the same or similar behavior.
Two case studies
I use two cases as concrete examples of cyberbullying. The first example is based on a hit tv series, and the second is based on an actual event. I used the internet as my main source from which to gather information about the cases. I describe the cases against the background of what is discussed in the previous section, to see if cyberbullying in the media truly increases the copycat effect.
13 Reasons Why
In the spring of 2017, the Netflix tv series 13 Reasons Why was very successful. The show begins with the conclusion of the story: the beautiful, smart, and sarcastic 17 year old Hannah Baker is dead. In the first few minutes, it becomes clear that she has committed suicide. Using seven recorded cassette tapes, Hannah Baker explained the 13 reasons for her suicide. While listening to her tapes, different people, among whom the people who hurt her, learn that she was sexually abused and became a victim of cyberbullying.
13 Reasons Why was a successful and popular show, but since the series was released in early April 2017, it has caused some controversy. Although Hannah Baker's statements from beyond the grave form the basis of the show, the series ends with the act of suicide itself, which leads to the following question: can a dramatic depiction of suicide go too far?
According to experts and many reviewers, the explicit images are unsuitable for teens (Trouw, 2017). Critics warned of the copycat effect, and, based on this warning, the series has been prohibited in various schools worldwide. In the Netherlands, too, the show received some criticism. The Dutch suicide prevention helpline contacted Netflix and suggested that they should have omitted the suicide scene.
Searches about suicide increased by 20 percent just 19 days after 13 Reasons Why was released, representing between 900,000 and 1.5 million more searches than usual.
Some psychologists say that the show glorifies suicide. At the end of July 2017, research was published that supports the concerns regarding copycat behavior. Google reported that searches about suicide increased by 20 percent just 19 days after the show was released. This percentage represents between 900,000 and 1.5 million more searches than usual (Ayers, Althouse, Leas, Dredze & Allem, 2017). However, Ayers et al. (2017) pointed out that it is uncertain whether an increase in searches regarding suicide meant an increase in actual suicide attempts.
Following the outcry, Netflix added a warning at the beginning of the series in addition to the warnings before the most graphic episodes. During the filming of 13 Reasons Why, the show's creators consulted with many mental health experts and did their best not to glamourize suicide. Brian Yorkey, one of the show’s creators, stated: “we did want it [Hannah committing suicide] to be painful to watch. Because we wanted to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide."
So, is 13 Reasons Why just a powerful provocative drama or something more troubling?
Some mental health professionals claim that there is research showing that suicide can be contagious. Even in the series itself. Hannah dies by her own hand and in the last episode there is another student, named Alex, who is involved in the tapes and also attempts suicide. Yet, some critics are of the opinion that 13 Reasons Why is not just for amusement. The show is about inspiring empathy, so the audience can learn the value of standing in someone else's shoes to understand their feelings and perspective. Imagine you were someone who was thinking about suicide; you would understand what it might do to the people around you. Moreover, you might feel that you are not alone in this experience.
Although 13 Reasons Why received major international criticism for its “dark and rough” depiction of these issues, it tries to convey an important message and purpose. The show offers an illustration and description of how the phenomenon of cyberbullying led Hannah Bakker to commit suicide. Ayers et al. (2017) concluded: “13 Reasons Why, in its present form, has both increased suicide awareness while unintentionally increasing suicidal ideation.”
The Story of Amanda Todd
A few years before 13 Reasons Why was created, there was another famous example of cyberbullying. In 2012, Amanda Todd uploaded a video onto YouTube, explaining how cyberbullying had made her life a living hell. The Canadian teen described how she was blackmailed by “a stranger” to show her breasts on a webcam. Without her knowing, the stranger took pictures of her naked body and then spead them over the internet and among her classmates and acquaintances. After an investigation by several law enforcement units, they found that the “the stranger” is a Dutch suspect who lives in a small town in Brabant, near Oisterwijk. By then it was, however, too late and Amanda Todd had taken her own life due to the bullying.
In October 2012, ABC News announced that Amanda Todd’s video had been viewed more than 17 million times (ABC News, 2012). Her case emphasizes the difference between traditional bullying and cyberbullying. She changed schools several times, and yet the bully continued stalking her. She could not escape her bully, because the internet is everywhere.
In the wake of her death, Amanda Todd became an icon of the anti-bullying movement, which has caused some controversy. Critics asked: why is she everyone's new favorite tragedy? Her story is not unique nor is it uniquely tragic. An unknown critic stated "there is no excuse for the astonishing moral hypocrisy of holding her above other similar victims."
So, did Amanda Todd's videos bring cyberbullying to light and increase suicidal thoughts?
In accordance with Coleman's research (2004), there is evidence that reporting of suicide in the media, especially of non-fictional individual suicides, triggers additional suicides, i.e. the copycat effects (see Cheng, Hawton, Lee and Chen, 2007; Etzersdorfer, Voracek and Sonneck, 2001; Jonas, 1992; Tousignant, Mishara, Caillaud, Fortin and St-Laurent, 2005; Wasserman, 1984).
Regardless of high profile stories such as Amanda Todd’s case, there is no evidence of an increase in cyberbullying.
On the other hand, according to Dan Olweus, who is considered to be the godfather of research into bullying, regardless of high profile stories such as Amanda Todd’s case, there is no evidence of an increase in cyberbullying in the past five years, despite the growing use of internet and smartphones. Olweus claims that cyberbullying is being overstated in the media. The media portray the problem as merciless and unavoidable, and that it creates a sense of powerlessness in victims. In his controversial research he concluded that: “The media creates a picture of children as small monsters in some way, that as soon as they get the possibility to be mean, they start doing this” (National Post, n.d.).
A critical view on the two case studies
Both cases are a realistic portrayal of all the horrible things that happend to Hannah Baker and Amanda Todd; however, the series 13 Reasons Why does not show where you can go and what to do to get help if you are in the same situation as Hannah Baker. This is also true for the case of Amanda Todd. Her video went viral. Many experts talked about how she cried out for help, but only a handful talked about addressing the cause and the concequences of her cry for help.
Moreover, neither of these cases addresses mental health disorders. According to NAMI (n.d.), over 90% of individuals who die by suicide have a mental health disorder. In the fall of 2013, the mother of Amanda Todd was invited to a talk show, where the anchor man confronted the mother with evidence that Amanda was a textbook case of depression. She attempted suicideseveral times. Whatever the case may be, we need to tread lightly when it comes to mental health issues and suicide. Blaming the victim for committing suicide is unreasonable. In both cases, the girls’ mental health problems may have been the straw that broke the camel's back; however, it is the bullying they underwent that got them there.
Furthermore, while it has been proven that copycat effects following media reports are a real phenomenon, there are indisputable discrepancies in the available research results. A significant number of studies has not identified any evidence of increased suicides after being reported on by the media (Mercy et al., 2001; Stack, 2005). According to Stacks (2005), these discrepancies may be due to the large variation in research methodologies, which may be due to lack of theoretical direction in the research on the phenomenon (Marsden, 2000, p. 84).
Virality, cyberbullying and the copycat effect
Technology has enabled the internet to cross all geographical boundaries. The internet is used for good, but also for bad. As discussed throughout this article, one of its bad aspects is cyberbullying. This paper sought to answer the question: Do cyberbullying cases that are covered by the media, or that went viral, increase the copycat effect?
Whether the internet and the media covering cyberbullying has an impact on copycat behaviour is a controversial issue. The case of 13 Reasons Why can be seen as an indication that there are some concerns regarding increasing copycat behavior. However, even though the number of Google searches for “suicide” drastically rose in the first 19 days after the release of the show, this does not prove that the actual suicide rate increased because of this as well. In the case of Amanda Todd, there is also no evidence of her case going viral increasing the copycat effect regarding cyberbullying.
Based on these two cases and the available literature on the subject, I have come to the conclusion that cyberbullying cases that are covered by the media, or that went viral, do not necessarily increase the copycat effect. Therefore, we shouldn't panic and keep reporting on cases like these.
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