Monday, August 5, 2013

Is it Time to Police the Internet?

I heard the news today that another young girl died by suicide, choosing to take her own life as a result of bullying through I'm not going to repeat the whole story here. You can probably find it by searching Google for bullying or suicide stories related to the site.

My main issue is that rather recently, has been at the centre of three suicides, three victims of bullying and harassment, and hasn't appeared to do anything to prevent further incidences. Its anonymous messaging continues, with people told to "drink bleach" or "go get cancer", and it once more highlights the problem with social media and developments in communication technology: cyber bullying.

In the past, bullying took place (by and large) in the schoolyard, or in the street, or in the workplace. While all of that still happens, modern technology allows the bully to break into the victim's house and intrude upon their private space with messages of hatred. Victims of cyber bullying can't escape the barrage. It attacks them where they feel safest, and it removes any semblance of protection the home might offer.

Awareness campaigns haven't quite caught up with cyber bullying. Not only do most people not feel as if they can talk about the issues of cyber bullying - it's easier to pretend it's not happening than to explain how you might have "let it happen" - most parents don't know enought about online safety and how simply telling children to avoid strangers on the Internet isn't good enough anymore. If anything, that only makes the Internet worse; there are billions of strangers who wouldn't harm you if you spoke to them online through Twitter or Google+, but there are dozens of people you do know (potentially) who would take advantage of your online presence to make you miserable.

I'm not going to pretend I understand why people treat others like that. What I can address, however, are the suicidal ideations that arise as a result of bullying. As evidenced by the three recent suicides as a result of online bullying, it's not uncommon to feel as if your life doesn't have enough value to keep on living it. In the most recent case, however, the young girl in question pointed out that sometimes a suicide attempt can be exactly what most people mistakenly assume all suicidal thoughts to be: a cry for help.

When the whole world - or your whole world, at least - seems to be against you, and you don't know how to explain how it makes you feel, and you don't understand why people treat you the way they do, and hide behind a veil of anonymity, it can be difficult to speak up and ask for help. If I thought someone was going through this sort of situation, though, there are some things I wouldn't say to them:

1. Suicide is a permament solution to a temporary problem. That's not a comfort to hear right away. When someone has agreed to find help - both with the abuse and its consequences, then it's time to highlight this point. It's more helpful for someone to realise they have done right by not taking their own lives than for someone to feel like they're thinking of doing something wrong.

2. Suicide is wrong. Someone who has been made to feel as if their existence is wrong isn't going to be put off taking their life by this point.

3. Suicidal thoughts or actions (attempts or self harm) are weird. While they aren't normal, and while someone experiencing them might not feel as if they are normal, there is the chance that someone sees them as being part of them. Pointing out that something is weird isn't going to make someone thinking or doing it feel any better about how they view themselves.

4. Suicide is never an option. Not only does this feel like a command, it's not even true. Suicide, for many people in every walk of life and in every culture around the world, is an option. It might not be one that people approve of, but the option is there. If you don't want someone to follow through on this option, tell them that instead. It's much more important for someone to hear that they are cared for, than to hear that they aren't allowed to do something.

5. Think about what you'd do to your parents if you killed yourself. While it might feel like an appeal to someone's sense of compassion and love, when experiencing suicidal thoughtss, or on the receiving end of bullying, or suffering from depression, it can feel as if you aren't receiving any love yourself. Returning it, or feeling good about anyone, can be difficult. Trying to make someone think about the consequences of suicidal actions while they are still at risk isn't a solution; it can create feelings of guilt or of worthlessness, and can make someone pull in to themselves even more as a way to get rid of any ill feeling thinking about family might bring about.

So, what should you do?

1. Be a friend. In cases of bullying, being the friend who's always there should be your primary concern. Allowing a victim of bullying or someone feeling suicidal to talk about what's bothering them is the first step towards preventing more drastic actions. If you're concerned that someone might be suffering in this way, keep an eye on them; look for any sign that something is wrong when they receive a text or look at their computer. If you know someone is giving them trouble, try to talk to them about it. If they don't want to mention something because they think things will get worse if they do, suggest being the one to report that something is wrong. In cases of bullying in schools, it can be easy to spot the bully once it's evident what they're doing.

2. Try to make arrangements to spend time with your friend away from a computer. A trip to the cinema or the theatre can be a good distraction, as any mobile devices that might be used to receive texts or emails or to use social media (including and Facebook) will have to be turned off.

3. Direct your friend to support services, and help them tell their parents and teachers (or employers, friends, etc.). Having more people to talk to and more ways to deal with the problems are essential.

4. Encourage your friend to (a) delete their account and (b) block anyone giving them trouble on Facebook or Twitter. Report bullies on any and all sites on which they are active.

In the long run, the less people using the better. At the moment, it doesn't support users who are being victimised and bullied. It makes cyber bullying too easy, and it provides one more easy avenue into someone's life. Anonymity is a dangerous tool for a bully to possess. Be aware, however, that it is possible to track anonymous users if the police are involved. Cyber bullying, in Ireland at least, is now a criminal offence, boarding on harassment. It's possible to catch the people causing your friend or loved one trouble.

For those who might have seen this happen already: don't feel guilty if your friend was in some distress and you didn't notice. It can be difficult to tell when someone is being bullied when it doesn't involve physical violence, and it's almost impossible to tell how someone is feeling at any given time of the day. The most important thing you can do is be there in future, and learn as much as you can about bullying, mental health issues like depression, and suicide. While it's not an easy topic to address, knowlegde and awareness are the first steps in preventing further incidences.

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