Why is the internet so vicious?

Staring at a screen and tapping at a keyboard drains all the niceness out of some people.
John Bambenek | 22 May 2009
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Every few weeks cyber-bullying hits the front page. A young girl commits suicide after a hostile interaction online. A high school controversy erupts over "sexting", the practice of taking a nude or semi-nude picture of oneself with a camera phone and sending it to a boyfriend. Violence is threatened against schools on MySpace or YouTube. Or just hostile anonymous emails at school.

The increasing frequency of these troubling scenarios raises two questions. First, what is it about the internet that leads some people to be so vicious? Two, why are some people so badly affected by hostile activities online that they will even commit suicide?

From the beginning of the internet some people have used it to threaten and abuse. Back in the days of USENET, many forums were populated by trolls (people who post messages to get a rise out of another reader) and flames (inflammatory and derogatory messages).

Why? First, because of anonymity. "On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog", has become web wisdom . People believe they can create a fake untraceable webmail address. This also explains the success of pornography; people don’t think that their online activities can be traced. In reality, most people leave digital fingerprints which can prove that they are dogs.

And then because of a lack of accountability. If you don’t know who said something or did something you can’t hold them account for doing it. People feel free to be racist, sexist and otherwise inflammatory because their friends and family won’t find out. This has led to a shocking degradation of normal civility. Just check out the comments below a controversial article on a popular magazine like The New Republic. Some of the sentiments are appalling.

It is easy to block unacceptable content on instant messaging, email or social networking sites. So why not just block vicious users? Well, teenagers, in particular, may not want to. They would feel left out or ignored. In fact, most cyber-bullies are people who know their victims and know how to twist the knife.

Take sexting. It has been estimated that 1 in 5 American teenagers admits to having sent or received provocative images. Boyfriends coerce girls into taking pictures and emailing them. That’s bad enough, but often the boy (not much of a friend, really) forwards it to other students. This kind of embarrassment can be lethal. Last year, Jessica Logan, a Cincinnati high school senior, killed herself after her photos began circulating among her friends.

Children need to be educated about safe online behavior. Interacting online is not the same as interacting in the real world. The person you’re talking to may not be the person they say they are. And sexting is not just unsafe, but illegal -- in the United States it is regarded as distributing child pornography.

Education in how to ignore people online is also needed. It’s not difficult to fine-tune a Facebook page for privacy or to filter emails from obnoxious people. Many platforms allow you to report abuse to the webmaster.

But the most important thing is for parents raise their children so that they have the self-respect and self-esteem to resist this kind of bullying. They need to be reassured that they have an inherent dignity that insulting words cannot take away, no matter how vicious the attack.

And parents should know what’s going on in the lives of their children. Cyber-snooping is not ultimately the answer. Most children are far more adept at the internet than their parents. Trust and openness with teenagers is far more important.

Some resources for more information can be found at: http://www.cyberbullying.us, http://www.stopcyberbullting.org, and http://www.netsmartz.org.

John Bambenek is an incident handler at the Internet Storm Center and blogs at Part-Time Pundit.

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