As one of the most important mediums of communication in society today, the internet provides a valuable service to the public; it connects hundreds of millions of individuals through open forums, blogs, and social networking sites. The advent of these different types of sites has created an instantaneous, constantly occurring dialogue, regardless of geographic location. However, the increased interconnectivity also comes with a price: face-to-face communication may occur less, and, as CNN has reported, the level of aggression and bullying over the internet is rising at a rapid rate. I contend that the reason for this cyber bullying is that most of the communication occurring on the internet is done anonymously. Furthermore, this cyber bullying is a real problem, and while it may not be bullying in the traditional, physical sense, actual harm can come from psychological bullying, and it needs to be addressed in an attempt to curtail the increasing trend of aggression.
Many of the channels of communication on the internet today, like chat rooms, blogs, and forums, allow for communication to occur anonymously. Often, the identities of the posters can be hidden which “can embolden individuals” in both positive (to voice concern without repercussion) and negative (as a mask for verbal cruelty) ways. Lesley Withers, a professor of communication at Central Michigan University, noted that the difference between the pre-internet era and present day is that “now there’s a perception of anonymity[…]people think what they say won’t have repercussions, and they don’t think they have to soften their comments.” The main difference between face-to-face communication and internet communication is in the difference between verbal and nonverbal cues. Text-based communication lacks the cues that verbal communication gives, which adds to the detachment and helps to de-humanize others over the internet. This very detachment has led to vitriolic or aggressive communication over the internet which has had a negative effect for those on the receiving end of the comments.
This lack of face-to-face interaction also leads to aggression in a parallel, real life way in the form of road rage. Often characterized by “sudden acceleration, braking, close tailgating, sounding the vehicle’s horn, and, of course, the classic one fingered salute,” road rage is a common part of today’s driving experience and something that many encounter or participate in on a daily basis. The psychological cause for road rage often stems from the fact that many feel secure behind the locked doors of the car, as well as the fact that drivers “may develop a sense of anonymity and detachment in the confines of their vehicles.” I have seen very normal, mild mannered individuals get extremely angry with other drivers without justification. In a psychological sense, the cause for this is that they often have a fundamental attribution error, choosing to overestimate the personality-based explanations and underestimate the situational variables for the behavioral actions of others. The drivers who feel road rage are unable to humanize the driver of another car, and they choose to attribute poor driving to ineptitude or a lack of concern, rather than to think about other possible reasons for the poor driving. Furthermore, road rage and subsequent poor driving can be controlled by cops who issue traffic tickets, but there are generally very few repercussions for cyber bullying, which makes it more of an important problem.
In online virtual environments, like those found in “Massively Multiplayer Online Games” like “Second Life” or “World of Warcraft,” entire groups of individuals have emerged known, in gaming vernacular, as “flamers” or “griefers.” These players actively go out of their way to be negative to other individuals. While this harm may not be physical in nature, the psychological effects can often be just as damaging. Players who invest hours of time into their game avatar can feel a sense of attachment or pride, as the character is a representation of the self in the game world. When a person’s avatar is bullied, the psychological harm involved is potentially longer lasting than physical harm due to this attachment. There really is not that much that can be done to stop this problem in these online virtual environments. As a second life player notes, “if you are attacked in Second Life, there’s little you can do besides file an abuse report.” Furthermore, by bullying other players, negative, hurtful behaviors are sometimes reinforced with attention or status, which only furthers this problem.
Internet bullying has also assumed the role of anonymous gossip or slander. Websites, like the now defunct “Juicycampus,” provided a safe haven for writing whatever gossip internet bullies wished to write without any negative consequences. Furthermore, even after the website was embroiled in legal battles concerning the harmful effects of the anonymous bullying, there were no repercussions for the writers of the gossip itself, only repercussions for the owners of the site. While there have been reports of jobs being lost, relationships ruined, and even lives taken as a result of internet bullying, the problem remains; there is little that can be done to police this type of activity in any wide-scale, all-encompassing way. Though internet bullying is much more prevalent and possibly more dangerous, the internet remains ungoverned and uncontrolled by any unifying body with absolute power.
The solution, then, is a long-term, individualistic answer, similar in some ways to the solution for solving road rage. First, and probably hardest to engender, is the need for compassion in every individual on the internet. There should be more attempts to humanize communication and interaction over the internet, like requiring websites to hold its posters or members accountable for their actions. Secondly, there needs to be more parental responsibility for children’s activities over the internet. Though the internet is a new medium, more awareness needs to be raised concerning the actual dangers involved with its use. Finally, the government is slowly attempting to pass legislation trying to make cyber bullying a criminal act. These steps, while they may not guarantee anything, may help to ameliorate some of the problems associated with anonymity and cyber bullying over the internet.