Speak up about cyberbullying: An invisible form on campus

(File pix) Jane Teoh (left) and Ruby Faye during the awareness campaign talk on cyberbullying at HELP University. Pix by NSTP/Rosdan Wahid

THERE’S no specific reason why a person is cyberbullied. Even someone as intelligent and beautiful as the reigning Miss Universe Malaysia 2018 Jane Teoh was a target.

Crowned early this year, the 20-year-old accounting and finance student from Penang beat 16 other hopefuls and was also named Miss Online Personality.

Right after winning the beauty pageant, Jane became a victim of photomontages and viral memes. In one incident, her photo was placed in a collage next to an animal with a caption comparing the similarities and at the same time poking fun at her.

“I became doubtful of myself when I saw the picture and read the comments. It made me feel that I am not good enough and that I have to be perfect as that’s what the public expect of me based on what they say online,” said Jane who will be representing the country at the 67th Miss Universe competition in Bangkok, Thailand next month.

Cyberbullying is a form of bullying that happens online, which involves harming, harassing, threatening and humiliating a person usually through social networks, messaging apps, chat rooms as well as via e-mail and on websites.

Common forms of cyberbullying that cause distress to the victims include spreading false rumours, posting humiliating photos or videos and stalking on social networks, and creating fake profiles and websites.

Jane said the experience of being bullied online or offline may be different for everyone, but it could affect every part of a person’s life and it could happen to anyone.

“In this day and age, we can’t deny the fact that social media is a big part of our lives. No matter what you look like on the outside, or even inside, anyone in the online sphere can be judged and victimised.

“But the youth today are more vulnerable and they tend to care about what people have to say about them. This needs to stop,” said Jane who recently kicked off #DareToShout, an awareness campaign on cyberbullying.

As a victim of cyberbullying, Jane understands how it feels like to read unpleasant comments on social media platforms. So it is important for her to reach out to the youth and help them to speak up about cyberbullying and, in time, overcome it.

While many studies are conducted to understand and document the negative impact of cyberbullying on schoolchildren, relatively little attention has been paid to the same issue on young adults at tertiary institutions. Typically understood as a teen issue, cyberbullying has trickled its way into the lives of university students and adults.

There is not much research on cyberbullying at higher education institutions to start with.

One research published in 2017 to understand the prevalence of cyberbullying among tertiary students in the country found that most cyber victims experienced emotional changes and became overly sensitive to their surroundings.

Out of 712 students who participated in the research conducted by academicians from Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia, 66 per cent reported that they have been cyberbullied. The findings also indicated that seeking assistance from friends and classmates is the most common coping strategy instead of asking help from the counselling centre at university.

HELP University Centre for Psychological and Counselling Services lecturer Sarah Yung said while the negative impact of cyberbullying on youth at schools is well-documented, comparatively less is known about its effects on undergraduates. It may benignly be seen that undergraduates tolerate such actions within the context of a university culture.

“Cyberbullying happens at universities but at a slightly evolved form unlike the bullying we see at schools. It has one dangerous trait — at tertiary level, it is quite invisible.”

“On a university confession page for instance, you can read many negative comments. However, it may not appear as cyberbullying for those aged between 18 and 25 years old.”

Cyberbully, she added, is of a strange trend originating from freedom of speech and speaking one’s mind that is emerging on the Internet and social media— the tool and space for people to express themselves.

The anonymity in social networks makes it easier for people to share their opinions and, in some ways, reflect their thoughts. Bullies know they can hide behind the computer screen and email, and text and post messages that contain hurtful words that are rude and highly defamatory.

“In the case of cyberbullying, there are no details that we can identify such as the face of a victim or the bully.

“Cyberbullying, like bullying, happens for many reasons, but it is certainly easier to bully someone from behind a screen.”

There is an assumption that cyberbully victims in general are helpless, have low self-esteem and lack confidence.

But students who excel academically can be victims of bullies. These are students who are active at universities and communicate well with the staff, faculty and friends.

“If someone posted something mean and we responded by liking that posting, are we also cyberbullies? In other words, am I taking sides with a cyberbully?”

EFFECTS

Cyberbullies can cause mental and physical impact such as depression, anxiety, stress, sleeplessness, weight loss and even suicidal thoughts.

For university students, being on the receiving end of cyberbullying can affect their personal lives, grades and relationships inside and outside the university, including avoidance of certain individuals and places where the cyberbully frequents.

Sarah, who is also a registered counsellor, said most youngsters care about how others perceive them, usually believing what people say about them while trying hard to please people to accept them for who they are.

“We cannot escape the strange climate on the Internet that gives a sense of control over how one wants to be pictured by others on the web.

For some, accounts and pictures of the better lives of other people can make them feel that life is unfair.”

Very often, Sarah added, victims do not feel the connection with those around them. They go online hoping that netizens will give them the attention.

“Some young people, who are suffering from stress and a low support system, turn to people online for support.

“If they do not receive the support online, the rejection affects their self-worth. At a stage where one is trying to build one’s identity, one tends to be more vulnerable to the perception of others.”

More students today are struggling with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

“It is a very pressing concern that they are struggling to find meaning in what they do and who they are. At 21, which is the age that one is legally an adult, they think others expect that they should have figured out their life.

“Some 20-year-olds cannot find the meaning of life and do not know how to even describe the missing pieces they feel in their lives.

“The irony is while we live in the age of connectivity, many of these young people feel disconnected. Reality is filtered on the Internet but many of us believe and define the world based on what is on the screen.”

This results in some feeling less about themselves, so they struggle with their selfworth, feel anxious and depressed leading to suicidal thoughts.

COPING STRATEGIES

“It is easier to choose not to communicate with anybody nowadays. Just take out my phone, put on my earphones and everyone will leave me alone,” Sarah said.

A lack of physical connection may be one of the reasons why the younger generation born in this digital age feels lost in this world.

Communicating with different age groups creates different connections and develops points of view for the young people.

However, Sarah believes regenerating the sense of connection with people around them, especially with different age groups, is important.

“You see your peers as equals. Peer discussions on certain topics may lead you nowhere.

“Having an older figure who can connect to you and be a mentor can generate ties that you may not get from your peers.

“Youths need mentors and we see this especially at universities when lecturers reach out and connect with students. Lecturers become an important bridge for students to cross over to the next level.

“When there is interaction between these two generations, it builds a sense of connection for both.”

WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE CYBERBULLIED:

KEEP THE EVIDENCE

Compile the evidence that you can garner which can include text messages, emails, screenshots, instant message conversations and IP addresses according to dates and times.

TALK IT OUT

Share it with someone you trust who can help you find the courage to make it stop.

BLOCK

Block bullies immediately even when they create new accounts.

GO PRIVATE

Control who can see what you write and post, as many social media accounts allow you to go private.

DON’T RETALIATE

Ignore bullies as retaliating opens up more problems.

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