As social media has become a larger part of our lives, so has the advent of internet trolling and the various facets of cyber bullying. Anonymity has emboldened internet users to go far beyond the limits of decency, and in some instances beyond common morality.
The way humans interact with one another on the internet is a complicated matter. One aspect of that interaction is the Gyges Effect. This is a philosophical idea based off a Plato story (Republic) that describes the morality of intelligent humans when they are "invisible," or in the case of the internet, anonymous. The idea is that a person only has morals because they are seen, or can be seen by others. That they can't be immoral when there are potential consequences to their actions. However, if they become invisible and there is no fear of being caught, they will act on any impulse. With no consequences, and a lack of seeing that shared humanity with others, average people say and do horrible things they might not do in real life. They may think there aren't any consequences to their actions, but they are wrong.
One form of cyber bullying that has intensified over the years is slut shaming.
Whether it's because a woman embraces the beauty of her body, or because a man decides to share a photo of a woman during an intimate moment, there is no shortage of examples. Kehlani Parrish is a recent example of how merciless the internet can be without any justification. After a photo was tweeted of her with an alleged lover who was not her boyfriend, the trolls went on the attack. Armed with nothing but an undated photo, hundreds of people jumped on the opportunity to judge Kehlani harshly and without remorse. This resulted in the singer attempting to kill herself. Luckily she survived, and will live on to fight another day.
While what happened to Kehlani is undeniably upsetting, and she will likely never see any sort of justice, this is just a small sampling of what many people experience on social media. Anyone with access to the internet now has a platform to share any ignorant, vitriolic opinion they may harbor. One group that's disproportionately affected by cyber bullying is LGBT+ youth. Same sex marriage may be legal in the United States, but life is still no walk in the park for far too many LGBT+ kids.
LGBT+ youth are at an increased risk of bullying and cyber bullying.
Peers, or even random strangers, lash out at LGBT+ kids by calling them names and generally wreak havoc on their self esteem. There is a reason that LGBT+ kids are more likely to engage in risky behavior or cause self harm. Just Google "lesbian/gay/transgender suicide stories" to be inundated with far too many accounts of LGBT+ teens taking their own lives because they were relentlessly bullied. Here are just a few of the LGBT+ teens to have committed suicide because of the bullying they experienced:
This is not acceptable. It's our responsibility as a society to start taking serious steps to address all forms of internet bullying. There is no easy solution to bullying, and it won't be going anywhere anytime soon, but there are some steps that anyone can take to help keep themselves safe on the internet. The best thing anyone can do is ignore the aggressors. This is not easy by any means - but what they want is your attention. They want to rile you up. By not giving them that satisfaction, they will become bored and move on. Block them and report them as necessary. It's about being reactionary and preventing further escalation.
Education is the best way to combat bullying. Showing kids at a young age that their actions have consequences, even when those actions are over the web, is vital in teaching kids to be more mindful. We need to be able to teach kids how to be empathetic to others even when they are unable to see other people's faces. Exposing kids to a variety of different cultures, religions, and other diverse groups of people is another great way to help teach kids to be empathetic to those who are not like them. Empathy is key to keep the internet civilized. It's not a catch all solution, but it's a step in the right direction.
The next step, and arguably most difficult, is holding online bullies accountable for their words and actions online. Where do we draw the line between free speech and actionable content though? That is not a question that we can answer right now. Lack of accountability has allowed bullies to run rampant online for far too long though, and the most obvious step is to hold responsible those whose actions result in injury/death of someone else. So, sharing nude photos of a person without their consent, threats of violence or sexual assault, vicious attacks online and so on, should result in some sort of punishment. We need to do some serious self reflection as a society to determine what we can do to protect the most vulnerable groups. As long as there is no accountability, there will not be any change.
We are still learning to navigate the digital social landscape, and with the rapid changes in our interactions will come significant growing pains. Before attacking some person online, think about any potential, real life consequences your words may cause. It's easy to be an asshole online - it's much harder to be compassionate.
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