Bullying is aggressive goal-directed behaviour that harms another individual. Abuse and bullying, whether online or elsewhere, inflicts harm on another.
People do not engage in bullying accidentally. By its nature, bullying requires intent, whether conscious or unconscious on the part of the perpetrator.
In most cases, bullying also reflects and instantiates an imbalance of power. In the physical world, this may be social, socioeconomic or crude physical power, but in the online realm, it may be more about a cognitive advantage leveraged to harm others through words.
When an adult posts a deliberately hurtful comment directed at someone else, they begin to pick away at the social code that lubricates interactions in the public sphere.
This unspoken but fundamental pact to not threaten the wellbeing of others underpins our ability to navigate the world outside our homes with confidence. When such behaviour becomes normalised online, this electronic space takes on the atmosphere of an old frontier town. The aberrant becomes the norm, the inappropriate accepted, and a sense of threat, anxiety and insecurity predominates.
More than 80 per cent of students bullied online are also bullied in person. Most people who access the internet have experienced online abuse or bullying either in person or as a witness. However, few take steps to intervene when they see such behaviour take place. In part, this is due to the inherent sense of distance that comes with witnessing online interactions.
It is easy to become lost in the anonymity that comes with visiting a social space shared in common with billions of others. We assume that someone else will speak up, someone else will hit the report button, a moderator will step in and clean things up … and so we become bystanders complicit in the normalisation of unacceptable behaviour.
It is easy to say that online behaviour doesn’t matter, that a few hurt feelings over a newspaper article, or mean words underneath a social media post, don’t spill over into the “real world”. But while such claims may have seemed plausible 20, or even 10, years ago, many of us, and especially those belonging to younger generations, now spend much of our real lives online.
The internet is no longer a niche world inhabited by tech geeks and gamers, but an integral part of the work and social lives of hundreds of millions globally. What happens in the electronic realm inevitably spills into the physical because the two are inseparably linked.
As long as we, as adults, stand by and allow casual abuse and bullying to be a normal part of this new social sphere, we have no right to be surprised that bullying behaviour becomes normalised for our children.
We cannot expect the parts of the internet visited by young people to be more polite and kinder than the parts visited by adults, because adults shape the norms and environments in which kids live.
We need to be clear: social media is not the problem. Social media is just a means of communicating. The problem lies in human behaviour, in how we communicate and what we think it is acceptable to say. If we tolerate intentional abuse and bullying among adults, and stand by passively while it happens, we are part of the problem.
To clean up the online space and make it safer for our kids, we need to look in the mirror and ask what we can do to foster online norms that mirror our expectations in the physical world.
The first step towards achieving this goal is to step up and step in when we see unacceptable behaviour online, just as we would if we saw it taking place on the streets outside our houses.
Kelly-Ann Allen is an educational and developmental psychologist and senior lecturer at Monash University.