The concept of cyberbullying may seem like a relatively new problem with kids and teens due to the explosion of social media. In reality, cyberbullying has been around for a long time, probably as long as emails and the Internet has been widely available. The behaviour and activity simply weren’t as widespread as it is today, which is why cyber attacks didn’t garner as much attention years before in New Zealand. Keep in mind, that the Internet and emails really became fairly common by the early 1990s, so there has been plenty of time for people’s social behaviours, good and bad, to migrate to the digital world. And New Zealand is no exception.

Digital Bullying Defined

So what is cyberbullying exactly? Is it different in New Zealand versus elsewhere? According to the legal world in many countries, cyber bullying today is the use of technology to intentionally and repeatedly bother or harass another person, particularly with digital communication tools. This irritation can range from basic insults to complex, highly detailed attacks to destroy a person’s social reputation.

However, this definition may not go far enough to explain what actually occurs to a victim suffering an attack. In the case of Charlotte Dawson, it drove her to kill herself, according to University of Otago. The above is a one-sentence description, intended to be general and simple at the same time so it can be applied broadly.

Cyberbullying often comes in a variety of different attack methods and ways. It can be solely attacks on the Internet or activities can involve a hybrid of personal face-to-face activities combined with digital attacks as well. As a result, trying to apply a distinct standard has often been frustrating because creative attackers have found loopholes and ways to work around barriers and restrictions repeatedly. However, all attacks have certain elements in common. These include:

  • There is a digital communication involved.
  • The activity is focused on trying to illicit some kind of mental impact to cause fear, intimidate, influence the victim’s behavior in a desired direction, humiliate, or to ruin a person’s social reputation.
  • The attacks are repetitive and often involve a pattern of activity versus just being a one-time event.
  • There is a genuine intent to harm the victim, even if only mentally or socially.
  • The attacks involve the use of the Internet, phones, smartphones or all together to effect harm.

Where the variation occurs is often in who causes the digital bullying or why. Cyberbullies don’t need to know their victim or have a whole lot of personal history with them. In fact, a good number of cyber bullies get started pursuing a victim they know nothing about prior to starting attacks. A number of attacks that have gained notoriety outside of schools or school-age victims have involved anonymous attackers fixated on humiliating a victim and causing annoying harm through electronic means such as taking over email accounts, changing passwords, and creating false charges on the person’s credit cards, and similar.

Numbers Matter

Attacks can also be generated by groups or by individuals, which often can change the flavour of what cyberbullying is. Group attacks, dubbed “pile-ons,” are typically coordinated attacks through some kind of common connection by the attackers. They may be classmates at school or they are associated with each other by the network, forum or organization. They coordinate privately and then attack from multiple points, confusing the victim and amplifying fear with multi-directional activities.

Attacks by individuals are often far more complex, involving planning and details by a lead attacker or an individual with an axe to grind against the victim for a perceived reason. They may use the response of groups to exacerbate the effect of an attack, such as embarrassing the victim in front of people who would impact the victim’s self-confidence or social standing. This is a classic hidden tactic used by individuals looking to debilitate another person socially or make them no longer a threat in a competitive environment.

Many assume that cyberbullying is just an activity that occurs in junior high and high school age teens. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Many early cyberbullying cases started with adults attacking other adults or outright stalking them digitally. The expansion of cyberbullying to youth generally occurred with the prevalence of social media as well as the easy access to smartphones that combined digital access with texting and the ability to take photos and send them quickly. That combination tool exploded as a means to bully digitally when it became affordable and common for teens to have generally in the mid-2000s.

Digital Versus Physical Bullying

Commonalities between digital and physical bullying include the fundamentals. There is a bully or group of bullies and there is a victim. The bully or group perceive power over the victim or have some kind of information that causes fear in the victim. The bully or group take advantage of this power imbalance to exact a desired behaviour or omission from the victim. The behaviour and attacks are repetitive and chronic, causing long-term stress and physical health effects to the victim, even psychological damage that can take years to recover from.

Differences are usually found in the nature of the digital forum. Electronic bullies are far more likely to use anonymity in attacks against victims. This element is significantly different from traditional bullying because it removes the need to have numbers or strength to overcome or overpower a victim. Instead, the inability to know who the attacker is stops the victim from effectively avoiding or responding directly to the bully to stop the behaviour or reduce it.

That often creates a far more powerful negative effect on a victim who is now completely blind to where the next attack will come from. Additionally, digital attacks come from forums where there is often no supervision. In schools or physical forums at least there is some kind of element within a distance that represents authority.

Teachers, managers, and even police have the ability to respond to physical bullies. Digital bullies often have no such restraints, again due to their anonymity as well as a lack of any Internet police. As a result, their attacks can be far more vicious and uncontrolled, frequently due to the perspective that the attacker won’t get caught and has a complete opportunity to cause harm.

Leaving a Trail

The downside of cyberbullying for attackers is that due to the digital nature of the tool used, many of their attacks and activities create a written record. When the attacker is finally identified, the written record doesn’t disappear and can often be used to create a very strong case against the person, despite their denials and statements of innocence. In fact, in many cases, the written record actually details to what lengths attackers will go to cause mental harm to a victim when cyberbullying.

Some attackers will frequently use multiple emails and social media accounts to cover their tracks. However, each one leaves a trace of where it originated, and most attackers are not smart enough to use third party digital invisibility sites overseas to mask their digital tracks before committing their attacks. These are tools often used by professional hackers but are virtually unknown to the typical school or office cyberbully.

Reactions to the Problem

Due to a number of high profile cases worldwide and in New Zealand, cyberbullying has now been gaining attention in both legislative as well as educational circles. The legal system has also been busy struggling with how to respond appropriately to law enforcement, realizing that these cases cannot be ignored or relegated to minor harassment, especially when people are driven to suicide, personal harm, or being ridiculed after physical attacks.

The educational system at both the grade and high school levels has also been busy incorporating general prevention tactics against cyber bullying. These efforts have included:

  • General rules indicating no tolerance of identified cyber bullying activities by students.
  • Prevention education about bullying in general and how it causes harm.
  • Banning the use of cellphones and smartphones in school and restricting computer use in school to educational activities only.
  • Proactive tracking of students’ activities when identified to stop further online bullying activities.
  • Turning over serious cases to law enforcement for potential prosecution.
  • Proactive police involvement and website establishments

However, despite the above, schools are still generally handicapped in prevent cyberbullying from occurring. This is because a large majority of digital bullying occurs from private computers and phones and occurs outside of schools. As a result, schools stop and often won’t go further pursuing instigators if they cannot be caught within the school system. This is often due to legal advice to avoid lawsuits of overreaching school authority against teachers and administrators.

The Kiwi office world can often be far more proactive. Businesses work under a premise of is it reasonable a person digitally attacked another. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is not necessary. Further, businesses proactively monitor their employees’ behavior online within company networks. So questionable activity can be found and used as proof someone needs to be terminated.

Finally, most companies work under an at-will agreement of employment, which means management can fire an employee for no reason at all at will anytime. Find a problem, confirm the behavior, fire the problem. This at least removes the issue from the company’s arena, but it may not resolve attacks on the victim. Additional activities could be carried out in revenge of a termination, but at least the attacker is now known, which can help authorities significantly.

Legally, stalking laws under the New Zealand Harassment Act of 1997 are probably the most effective current legal protection available for victims of cyber bullying. If the attacker can be identified, and a pattern of attacks can be documented, the stalking laws can usually be applied against the attacker as the basis of criminal charges, including financial penalties.

Remaining legal avenues often require some kind of physical or financial criminality to press charges, such as messing with a person’s bank account or causing them to be physically assaulted in school. Again, in these instances, the digital activity does not create the crime charged; it is the secondary activity caused that actually creates the crime.

However, some new laws are currently in front of the New Zealand Parliament, trying to strip away the anonymity protection of Internet attackers as well as increasing penalties against those caught. The proposed New Zealand penalties would include a $2,000 fine and three months in jail according to the Bay of Plenty Times.

Finally, civil lawsuits against an identified attacker has mixed results. While they can gain some retribution, most attackers then refuse to pay damages, forcing more legal proceedings to grab their assets or put liens on paychecks. If the person is a teen or low income, achieving any kind of financial recovery is often fruitless.

Harm Caused

There is no question that cyber bullying has a real effect on victims. Digital attacks and chronic humiliation has resulted in victims losing productivity in school as well as at work. Some have gone into depression, needing critical psychological and medical help. Some have actually moved and changed locations to get away from attackers.

Still others have committed suicide or made attempts to harm themselves as a result of chronic humiliation and mental attacks. The big problem with digital attackers is that in many cases physical distance is not enough to stop the problem. Because the attacks come across the Internet, they can continue as long as the victim sees the emails or social media attacks.

The harm caused can also be long-term. A cessation of the attacks does not mean the victim will suddenly be 100 percent okay. Mental harm often takes much longer to recover from than a physical attack. It can lead to fear of being social, fear of the Internet, aggressive personal privacy protection, loss of self-confidence, and ongoing inabilities to be social with others. These effects can carry into adulthood for affected teens, impacting their ability to be successful in life and careers as well.

Clearly, cyber bullying is not a game, yet many attackers and even authorities still treat it as such. As a result, it will likely take stronger reactions by lawmakers, educators, and law enforcement to shut down the behavior, or at least create stronger deterrents to the activity.