The “Reason” We Cyberbully


Everyone knows about cyberbullying – what it is, how it can effect us, why we fear it, but do we know why we, even as adults, do it?

The New York Times wrote an article about cyberbullying among adults, and how insensitive comments or jokes made on social media can result in an international backlash that could lead to severely damaged reputations, lost jobs, and alienation from society. Although the context is different from child-on-child cyberbullying, I think there is a lot to be learned from the cyberbullying that is occurring amongst adults, often times highly educated and highly successful adults.

This article talks about empathy, and how we learn it:

Psychologists say that empathy is learned two ways. The first is by seeing, hearing or even smelling how your action has hurt someone else — something that is not available to those behind a screen and keyboard. The second is to experience something painful yourself.

Children learn at a young age what is right and what is wrong behavior, and how being mean can hurt someone’s feelings. Although these basic skills are learned and understood, the lines become blurred when the medium changes (ie: from verbal to online communication). It becomes harder to understand how pixels on a screen could cause very real emotional pain, especially when it’s not possible to see an immediate reaction as you would if the communication was verbal.

Sometimes cyberbullying is not motivated by wanting to be mean at all, but rather feeling like you’re doing the right thing and shaming someone who might have hurt someone else. The article references several incidences of an individual posting a comment that was highly insensitive or offensive, although in most cases made as a tactless joke rather than a public statement of hate. In each case, an online mob relentlessly bullied the poster to the point of causing very real harm such as personal safety threats, and loss of jobs.

…I’ve come to the realization that most people do not join these online mobs with the intention of being mean.

“You show your proof of membership in a community by criticizing the most erratically,” said Anil Dash, a tech entrepreneur and blogger who has been on the receiving end of racially charged Twitter mobs. “There’s a social dynamic that says ‘Let me show that I belong.’ And there is a reward structure for being even more inflammatory.”

Mr. Dash noted that online mobs can sometimes serve a public good, as in cases when the powerless are given a voice to hold the ruling class accountable.

But the next time we want to provide justice from behind a keyboard, we should remember that there is a nuanced human being on the other side of that screen.

And that is just it, cyberbullying occurs frequently because it is hard to realize that there is a human at the other end of your attacks. A human with thoughts, and feelings, and one that can make mistakes from time to time and should not be severely shamed for those mistakes.

As adults that are helping shape young minds, we must be very attentive to how children are perceiving the internet. Do they realize the power of the internet – that once something is out there, it will always be out there? That if they spread a rumor, or say something mean to someone else, those words will not only follow the victim, but can follow the poster as well. Do they think about how someone else will be affected by what they say online – what will their expression would look like, and how will it make their heart feel after reading the message?

The more we educate children, the more they will understand that cyberbullying is not only unacceptable, it’s not an option. We all need to promote positivity because negativity will not only perpetuate the problem, but can result in something we never intended.

“It isn’t big to make others feel small.”

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