Since social media platforms started to come to life and gain traction, they have been popular with individuals across the globe, particularly with young people. The act of encompassing one’s life with a series of virtual extensions of the self attracts to young minds simply because of the desire to fit in with a crowd. It is no big secret that young people (specifically, in their early teenage to early twenties) go through periods of feeling a burning desire to belong. It is part of growing up, of creating one’s own story, something that is uniquely them. Ironically, in the quest for individuality and simultaneous belonging, those seeking these things often lose themselves. – sometimes with catastrophic results. When social media platforms are based on written communication (Facebook) or visual aesthetics (Instagram and Snapchat), they are also consequently becoming virtual paper trails that detail and highlight specific moments or events in a person’s life. And while social media can connect young people, it can also tear them apart – both as a collective group and as individuals. Cyberbullying is becoming increasingly common among users of social media – even more so with those that fall into the younger demographic of users. What starts out as half-hearted remarks can spread like wildfire until it becomes full-scale attacks, and all-consuming for the victim.
Social media platforms are notorious for being breeding grounds for cyberbullying, as the users behind the screens feel emboldened by the protection of their screens, to say things that they would not normally say. Young people are impressionable at best, and adding in the format of online media usage only adds fuel to the fire that is social media cyberbullying. Victims are often the target of cruel individuals online on a scale that far surpasses that of the impact that is centred around them in person. In person, individuals must face the responsibility and the consequences of their actions and words, with other people often stepping in to put a stop to the harassment as well. While victims often do have a safety net in their family and friends, sometimes they are not aware (or simply not ready) of that safety net, and catastrophic events can lead to gaping holes of unimaginable suffering.
When action is taken, schools are made aware – sometimes taking action, sometimes not – parents exchange words, and in some cases trusted companies are enlisted to help the victim and their family with the hefty task of moving interstate to escape the social media and personal attacks, to start a new life where no one knows who they are. Unfortunately, sometimes even moving to an entirely new state is not enough. As is the nature of the internet, the bullying can follow the individual no matter where they go. Deleting social media profiles – and staying off social media for a while – is sometimes the most appropriate action, as simply making new accounts leads to a sickening game of cat and mouse, where those responsible for the cyberbullying track down the new accounts and unleash a new wave of terror – terror that feels virtual, untouchable to them, but is very real and very taxing for the victim.
Online however, social media usage has an air of detachment associated with it, as users sit behind screens and are consumed with a sense of sickening fearlessness in the lack of accountability – when they cannot see the impact on their victims, it often makes them feel strengthened in their resolve, and they bully relentlessly, saying things that they never would in person. It is a vicious cycle, and individuals that take part in cyberbullying sometimes feel as though they can get away with their words, because there is no “paper trail”, no one to physically see them saying and doing these horrific things to another person. The irony of this assumption is of course that social media platforms themselves are digital paper trails, the code behind the networks ensuring that once something is written or posted to the social media platform in question, that it stays there.
One contributing factor that significantly raises the bar regarding responsibility is the social media platforms themselves. As the world barrels ever further into a tech-motivated future, individuals – especially young people – are using social media more than ever. The result of this continuous (and increasing) social media use is that young users are falling so far down the virtual rabbit hole that they begin to struggle to draw to the line between reality and their virtual realities. Social media use has definite downfalls, and cyberbullying is one of the biggest downsides to digital communication. Many social media networks allow users to create profiles anonymously. Social media platforms are built around the concept of creating a virtual profile of one’s true self, and yet apps are being created that allow users to make online profiles that are entirely anonymous. Additionally, while the most popular social media platforms – like Facebook and Instagram – require users to create profiles with specified details of themselves, it is becoming more and more common that users make up details, effectively creating fake profiles. They then use these fake social media profiles as the basis of their cyberbullying tirades. In a world where digital profiles are abounding, there is not nearly enough monitoring on said profiles to ensure their authenticity. Anonymity is just another gateway for social media attacks to occur.
Social media has a magical quality of being able to connect people across oceans. The invention of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat brought with it a surge of curious, excited users. The unfortunate counterpart of social media is that not all users engage with social media experiences in positive ways. Cyberbullying on social media has spread to become a literal epidemic, with one in five people being the victims of online abuse at some point. While some social media platforms make attempts to censor users’ content, and communities, professionals, and family and friends attempt to connect with victims (if they are even aware of the fact), the cruel reality is that social media is a breeding ground for cyberbullying. Censorship and human connection and support are great things, but more needs to be done if bullying at the hands of virtual reality platforms is to be stopped.