Thu. Feb 9th, 2023

Digital & Cyber Bullying: Tantamount to a Crime?

By Samah Durrani

The nature of the cyber world is such that it usually blurs the line between what is acceptable and what is not, what is wrong and what is right, what is tolerable & what is condemnable. You could be called out for being a hero online for standing up for what you believe in but in the process you may be humiliating or in fact bullying an actual human who you have deemed a digital non-being. A non-existing entity that you will never meet, see or hear.

These so-called “cyber” bullies send hurtful, harsh or cruel words in order to humiliate, intimidate or threaten. They send provocative insults or racial or sexist slurs all in the name of championing free speech & internet-freedom. We may not know it but every one of us is likely to be either a victim or a bully.

Recently a local model Saheefa Jabbar Khattak, who went for a more bold look and cut her hair to an almost boy-cut style, faced fierce backlash, online criticism and humiliating comments on her photo-shoot. She has recently spoken out against cyber bullying, going live from her Facebook Profile talking about the comments where people called her names and ridiculed her.

High profile cases certainly get people talking and this is only a recent example that has brought this broad issue to light. Many of our children, who have been born in the digital era, use the internet on a daily basis. As keen explorers, they venture into the cyberspace not knowing the pitfalls & dangers. We need to realize that digital bullying is a real problem that can have as much of a lasting damage on the victim as physical or emotional bullying in the physical world can.

Kids may be subject to bullying by other students in school either online or through other digital mediums such as mobile phones. These mediums follow the children home and many people become witnesses to their humiliation. Several studies have shown that victims of bullying are most likely to become bullies themselves. Cyber bullying is often done by children who have had access to the internet from a very early age.

Around 35 million people in Pakistan are internet users which makes up of about 18% of our population. In 2010 this number was only 8% of the total population. According to a source, 1.5 billion Youth will access the internet for the first time in the next 5 years across Asia.  Thus teaching young users to be responsible in the online world is most critical.

Child rights groups have asked for regulations to prevent inappropriate access however it is more prudent for parents to keep an eye out on their kids’ online activities themselves. Parents should reach out and engage their kids in a dialogue about their interaction in the online world. Prohibiting the use of internet completely could lead to isolation and further long term effects and moreover you would deprive them of the positive aspects of internet such as academic research and a vast readily available knowledge base. Instead monitor their electronic activities and exercise available parental control options.

Although there are laws in place against personal threats and harassment, there is no law yet in place that accounts for the emotional & psychological damage done to the victim of digital bullying. Internet Cafes do not require any license to operate and opening one is simple. The widely publicized Electronic Crime Act 2016 only covers more obvious issues like blackmail, fraud and physical threats and is known to be misused to target political opponents. The common man, woman & child are still vulnerable to untoward experiences online.

Internationally, many NGOs and educational institutes are spreading awareness about modern day cyber bullying. ‘Stop Cyber bullying Day’ is being celebrated through the renowned NGO Cybersmile Foundation.  They have asked people to Tweet a positive or supportive message with the hashtag #SCD2016, or re-tweet one of theirs from their Twitter channel @CybersmileHQ and join the campaign globally. “RETHINK” is a software that effectively stops cyber bullying before the damage is done.  When an adolescent tries to post an offensive message on social media, ReThink uses its context sensitive filtering technology to determine whether or not it’s offensive and gives the adolescent a second chance to reconsider their decision.

An NGO named Teaching Tolerance has began an anti- cyber bullying sign campaign involving the students in it.  Along with physical signs in school buildings, they offer a variety of ways to learn about cyber bullying: text, video, games and interactive tutorials, and ways to deal with it on their website. I believe the NGOs, educational institutes, commercial corporations in Pakistan & the society itself have a responsibility to spread awareness about this issue and tackle it responsibly. A Telecommunication Company, a leading digital service provider in Pakistan focuses on this issue, conducting sessions & outreach programs to promote online safety.

While the government works proactively towards blocking inappropriate sites, blasphemous or pornographic content, it is yet to focus on Cyber Bullying – a seemingly less taboo but highly toxic aspect of the internet. The worst part is that the persecutors don’t even realize the offence, imagining the “virtual” world not as “real” as the physical one. Body shaming has become everyone’s birth right in the virtual world. Hate speech that wouldn’t be uttered in person is thrown around in comments online.

This goes beyond ridiculing worst dressed celebrities at the red carpet of XYZ awards or an appalling recent coke studio performance, open to critique from the general public. Cyber bullying has some very serious and unpleasant aspects. We should not underplay the risks but use our digital voices responsibly and conscientiously. Government and regulatory authorities should add Cyber Bullying to their agenda and set regulations in place to curb it. Parents and teachers should also play roles in proactively addressing this issue from a young age.

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