Torment with Impunity

Bullying in cyberspace is dangerously easy

A few years back, one of my daughters introduced me to “Charlie Bit My Finger,” a home movie of two British brothers that at the time was YouTube’s most watched video. We watched it over and over, laughing hysterically at the climactic moment when the older brother’s grin turns to agony as he yells “Ow! Chowlie!” For a time in 2011, “Charlie Bit My Finger” was supplanted by “Friday,” a music video starring an unknown named Rebecca Black. Eager for American Idol–style instant stardom, Black’s family paid a company called Ark to write her a pop song and produce her video. Almost overnight, “Friday” became a YouTube sensation, but not in the way the California teen had hoped. I watched the video about half a dozen times and I must confess, I found it hilarious. It was not so much that Black’s singing was bad—although unlike the teens and 20–somethings who were gleefully sharing the video on Facebook, I had no idea her voice had been heavily autotuned. No, credit the song’s laughably banal lyrics and the video’s vacuous portrait of teenage life (“Partyin’ partyin’! Whoo!”) for making “Friday” the viral so-bad-it’s-good phenomenon it became.

So it was disconcerting to discover, when I read Paula Todd’s Extreme Mean: Trolls, Bullies and Predators Online, that I had contributed to a major incident of cyberbullying. Todd devotes a whole chapter to the emotional fallout Black experienced from the vicious pile-on that ensued on YouTube and other sites (“Kill yourself,” “After watching this video I have become pro-abortion”). In the spirit of “you gotta see this, it’s hilarious,” I shared the video with friends on and off Facebook, which made me, in Todd’s view, a kind of bystander in an internet mob. Although I did not post any mean comments myself—it would not have even occurred to me—I was an unwitting enabler of those who did. Which demonstrates the central point of Todd’s book: by giving us the ability to broadcast our opinions to countless numbers of people with the touch of a “like” or “share” button, the internet has given rise to a whole new level of “extreme mean.”

Ironically, despite (or perhaps because of) all the negativity, Black did become a pop star of sorts. She continues to record, does celebrity appearances and maintains an active YouTube channel. In that sense, she is hardly the best example of the harm caused by cyberbullying. The real achievement of Todd’s book lies in her exhaustive documenting of other better-known and truly horrific incidents of online abuse, especially Canadians Amanda Todd (no relation to the author) and Rehtaeh Parsons, both of whom took their own lives after enduring unrelenting cyber-attacks. Indeed, the opening line of Extreme Mean—“This book is not for the faint of heart” is an understatement. What follows is a litany of abuse that Todd admits she found so appalling that she worried that she herself was becoming desensitized to it all.

Over the past few years, cyberbullying has become a hot topic, with sensational reporting reminiscent of the media controversies of earlier decades. Starting in the mid 1980s, TV and video games were blamed as the cause of real-world copycat violence. Over time, it became generally accepted that cause-and-effect explanations were too simplistic, and these moral panics about media violence came to be seen as overblown. Today the current media bogeyman is the internet, and Todd cites some experts who claim that the incidence of online abuse is similarly exaggerated. But she herself is having none of it, and statistics seem to bear her out: findings of several major studies show somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of kids have been bullied online. The problem, as Todd freely admits, is that most studies rely on self-reporting, and there is no clear, universally accepted definition of what constitutes cyberbullying (a phrase that, by the way, was coined by a Canadian, Alberta teacher Bill Belsey, a fact not mentioned anywhere in Todd’s pages—although I cannot be sure since Extreme Mean has no index, an odd omission in such a fact-driven book).

Of course, statistics cannot adequately address what are essentially existential questions: Why are humans so cruel to one another? To what purpose? What do these people get out of posting hateful comments? Who has that much time on their hands anyway? Todd makes a valiant effort to explore these questions, and it turns out that a good deal of the problem indeed stems from people with too much time on their hands—marginal, unemployed, bored—as well as some who are mentally ill. But Todd is convinced that there is something in the character of the cyber-abuse phenomenon that is truly new and unprecedented. Not only do bullies operate behind the cloak of online anonymity, but they also avoid even the most minimal requirements of human interaction in the physical world, such as making eye contact. Todd asks whether “the Internet, devoid of human cues, resembles the environment in which a psychopath lives—immune to the feelings of others, and lacking in empathy.” Her concern that some fundamental aspect of our humanity might be lost is reflected in the work of MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, who has been studying the human impact of online technologies since the 1980s. It is a question that can be simply put: is social networking making us less social?

Understandably, most of the book focuses on victims, which is why Todd’s interview with an avowed internet prankster who goes by the pseudonym Logan Parker is so intriguing. Parker does not consider himself a cyberbully—he says he regards them with contempt—but more a kind of “shock jock,” using the ease and anonymity of the internet to indulge his appetite for jokes, sarcasm and hoaxes. He admits that he enjoys flaming, posting personal attacks and insults “just for the pleasure of watching how quickly strangers became angry and combative.” In Parker’s eyes, what he is doing is just harmless fun. But his behaviour is on a continuum with true internet tormenters, and the interview sheds light on a psychology that is largely hidden in the shadows.

Todd does not shy away from acknowledging the complexity of the issues. She resists the media narrative that cyberbullies hounded Amanda Todd into killing herself, pointing out the British Columbia teen had long-standing mental health problems that doubtless contributed to her suicide. In the online world there is seldom a clear line dividing victims and perpetrators: the bullied can become bullies and vice versa, often in a brief time span. Intentionality is another consideration: online commenters are often shocked to realize the effects of their nastiness, and say they did not mean to cause hurt. Many kids indulge in online cruelty as a result of peer pressure, or to avoid becoming a target themselves.

The internet has certainly created new pathways for humans to be cruel to one another. But in a media world saturated with political attack ads, talk radio and reality TV, online extreme mean is a logical outgrowth of our increasingly nasty culture, a problem that is unlikely to be fixed in isolation from the wider society. It would be helpful to identify and study those societies where cyberbullying is not a problem. Unfortunately, Todd’s almost exclusive focus on the developed, English-speaking world does not leave room for examining the issue cross-culturally.