By Zion Yu
October 9, 2022
Compared to the 1900s when the internet was heavily centralized around knowledge sharing, political organizing, or commercial uses, with rapid technological development, modern society is dominated by digital platforms, allowing a new layer of the internet. Especially in the early 2010s, communications and interactions between users on social media have never been easier than before with online banking, video calls, navigation, and shopping; however, regardless of positive attributes, negative consequences and concerns arose such as bullying, harassment, violent content, hate or porn; “voluntary and repeated assaults against a person through electronic means” (Menesini & Spiel, 2012). This has been an ongoing issue with 59% of teenagers having experienced either bullying or harassment online. There has been a controversy on whether the government should mediate and handle these problematic behaviors circulating online or if social media platforms should take accountability. Is it impossible to completely avoid harassment as long as one is active on social media? Who is responsible for this issue and how can it be managed?
Bullying, discrimination, and harassment occur on social media when someone is targeted or is treated less favorable due to a particular attribute they attain in form of “inappropriate posts, comments or content shared on social media” which can also amount to sexual harassment (Australian Human Right Commission, 2022). Unfortunately, it is quite easy to find racial hatred behaviors such as mocking someone’s race with slurs or blatant sexualizing comments under posts.
There are serious consequences for someone who may be suffering from cyberbullying which could potentially deteriorate someone’s mental and physical well-being; self-harm, and development of psychological disorders like eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. Even when these individuals are aware of being bullied online and are experiencing these negative consequences, the majority are hesitant to report or share these problems with authorities or even with closest acquaintances; statistics present that 15% of young victims are likely to keep these issues a secret which indicates there may be a lack of assistance or support when victims encounter such situations.
Harassment on Social Media
So, what are social media apps doing to prevent these kinds of bullying online? Currently, social media apps such as TikTok or Instagram have community guidelines or restrictions that prevent certain words such as offensive slurs or particular content that creators are posting in order to maintain a healthy and safe online environment. For example, leaving inappropriate words in comment sections or posting offensive content consistently will give the user a warning several times along with reasons why it was removed. If the user continues to demonstrate harassment, it will result in being completely banned, or losing their account. Additionally, almost all social media platforms have a report function, in which a user can report an account, post, videos, as well as comments.
Regardless of all these safety guidelines, social media users still manage a way to harass or sexualize others on the platforms; a TikTok user shared a video of breastfeeding her child with innocent intentions and people started unnecessarily sexualizing or harassing her. Additionally, there were numerous incidents where users sexualize young girls; there were more than 200,000 saves on videos of babies bathing with inappropriate phrases or words. To this, TikTok responded that they try their best to foster a safe environment for content creators, so they “remove abusive or harassing behavior and accounts while also empowering people with tools to block and report accounts and control who can engage with their content” (Levine, 2022); regardless, other mothers who provide breastfeeding content for a campaign that normalize breastfeeding were told to “kill themselves” by those who found her actions to be abnormal; harassment both for kids as well as mothers.
Even though TikTok users are not able to search inappropriate words like names of drugs, body parts, and racist slurs, users purposely misspell the words to still search and to avoid being flagged. This indicates that social media rules and restrictions are applicable only to a certain extent, and users eventually find methods to post, comment, and reply to whatever they want; these guidelines seem like they cannot be a definitive, sole answer to problematic content on social media. Additionally, “15 different online platforms defined harassment and found there was little consistency in the definition or even range of behaviors described by the various platforms” (Pater et al. 2016), meaning that other forces are needed to narrow down the definition of cyberbullying and certain criteria that regulate behaviors online.
If social media apps are not able to inevitably be in full control of maintaining a safe online community, the government must also partake in promoting anti-bullying and harassment online; instead of social media apps defining what bullying is in their own ways, the government defining the exact line to what is bullying and what is not, what kinds of consequences a user would receive from cyberbullying, would be beneficial in establishing standard criteria – some actions may be restricted on one social media while it is allowed on other apps which creates a toxic online environment for the latter. Some argue that the government spreading awareness of cyberbullying and how detrimental the exposure of inappropriate content is, would provide useful information to individuals who may have been quite reckless online whether it is through advertisements or campaigns – this may sound sensible; however, countless people at least once in their lifetime have seen public service announcements or advertisements on cyberbullying yet it is still a critical issue being debated, worsening over time. In 2011, the percentage of parents who reported their child being a victim of cyberbullying was 8%, whereas it was reported 19% in 2018 – other countries also showed similar trends; this indicates this issue requires a replacement of current universal guidelines and rules in the digital media.
Strengthening the legal consequences of cyberbullying could possibly be the most efficient way to reduce online harassment. With this approach, social media users would consider cyberbullying as a legitimate crime instead of a simple joke – online bullies claim that their actions were “just spur of the moment…just messing around…a joke with my friends”. The seriousness of cyberbullying is not heavily weighted and legally stressed in most countries and frankly, some people rather find it a way of entertainment. Due to these perceptions, accentuating the seriousness of online harassment by enacting more strict laws may be necessary. Currently, in the United States, the penalties for cyberbullying can range up to $2,500 in fines and up to a year in prison, and most of the offenders are also suspended from school; however, most online users are not aware of these laws, and how consequential they are. It is mostly the government’s responsibility to sustain the online environment since social media apps are fundamentally regulated by the government as well.
Can Schools Lower Problematic Content Online?
On top of governments imposing legal restrictions, schools, where students spend most of their days, must provide sufficient and comprehensive education more in-depth than the current level of education as well as the magnitude of cyberbullying in both legalistic, cultural, and individualistic sense. Informing students on how to discern and manage harassment could drastically reduce the rates: being careful of what they post, being aware of deceitful messages from unknown users such as asking where one lives or work, and being careful about meeting online friends in person, and using anonymous browsers (CCOHS, 2022). Since online hate is more likely to occur when people are chronically online, the chances of cyberbullying are higher in recent years as smartphones and access to social media have become more readily available. With this, schools emphasizing the significance of being offline and connecting with one another in person can encourage individuals to avoid the internet or digital media being the central focus of their lives.
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