How to Watch Out for Cyberbullying on Social Media

Many adults may remember what bullying was like when they were in school, and they’ve hopefully learned about how today’s so-called “cyberbullying” is very different from their childhood bullying outlook or experience. The bullies themselves haven’t changed a bit, since the first caveman beat up another caveman and took his leg of mammoth. But, what has changed is the way bullies go about this behavior. Unfortunately, the tools at the disposal of today’s bullies make their hateful work so much easier and so much more widespread.

Cyberbullying involves the use of electronic media that includes text messaging, as well as websites like Facebook, Vine and SnapChat, to spread hurtful, incriminating images, videos or texts to audiences of literally thousands of people. Imagine one awful picture of you changing in the school locker room suddenly, and instantaneously, it’s being sent to thousands of cell phones at the push of one button; you could literally zip up your blue jeans, walk out into the hallway and find that everyone in the school had been granted access to a nude photograph of you.

Schools and law enforcement agencies are taking steps to stop the crime of cyberbullying, but today’s up-to-date cyberbullies have learned to skirt the law by using individuals’ own content against them. They nab photographs off of Facebook users’ pages, for example, doctor the images slightly or add a misleading caption, and then share it, thereby getting around some of the legal ramifications because it’s content that their victims willingly shared. When the content comes directly from something the victim has posted, it’s much harder to prove that bullying has occurred.

One great example of this actually began as a well-intentioned lesson on Internet use. A fifth grader teacher (several teachers around the country later followed suit) created a lesson intended to teach her students about Internet safety. The purpose was to demonstrate how a photo or a post could spread like wildfire, and also show that the person who uploaded the original post had little control over where it goes, after pressing the publish button. The teachers posted photos of themselves holding white paper signs that read things like, “I’m teaching my students about the effects of social media. Please ‘Like’ this photo, so we can see how far it spreads.”

Instead, the teachers were the ones to learn the valuable lesson, as individuals on the Internet took it upon themselves to use those teachers’ images in a harmful way. The end result was doctored images that had been altered after the teachers uploaded them. The multiple incidences that were rampantly shared, included changing the wording on the teachers’ signs to include profanity or racist remarks, involved using Photoshop software to insert images of naked men around the teachers, removing the teachers’ clothing with this same software and more.

Now, what should have been an important lesson for grade school students on how social media really works turned into highly incriminating photographs of these teachers that circulated around the Internet. The potential damage to their careers and their future hiring potential is astounding, all because some bullies altered the teachers’ original content and used it against them.

Unfortunately, another popular practice is to initiate a social media account with a similar name; if the student’s name is John Herring, for example, a cyberbully can swap out the “O” in John’s name with a zero, creating the account “J0hnHerring.” From there, he can post any number of humiliating text and image-based status updates, including compromising and incriminating material. John’s Facebook friends likely won’t even notice that the account is fraudulent, and therefore, will be left scratching their heads about the horrible things they just saw.

Coupled with the frightening statistics on cyberbullying, it’s enough to make anyone want to unplug the computer. But, since social media can be a fun and valuable tool, it’s more important to teach your kids and grandkids about personal safety. Help them understand the dangers involved, such as the permanence of content that is uploaded and the viral nature of content that can spread to thousands of people. They also need to understand that there must be an open-door policy in your family, where kids’ social media accounts are not off-limits to the adults who care about them. Finally, should bullying be taking place, instill in your younger computer users the need to come talk to you, whether your child is the victim or merely an innocent bystander to someone else’s pain. Let them know that they have your complete, non-judgmental support and that you will stand by them to make this behavior stop.