Cyberbullying: No Online Laughing Matter

Word cloud for cyberbullying
My business was nearly ruined by a cyberbully. And that was before "cyberbullying" became trendy.

About 10 years ago, an individual began a very ugly attack on me personally and professionally out of a need to "get even" for a perceived wrong.  At the time, I didn't realize that this person had a history of "old school" bullying, stalking and harassment, but this appeared to be the first time technology was the weapon of choice.  The perpetrator used all sorts of tricks and tools to discredit me, including hijacking my business website, substituting a different, damaging site in its place, and creating new linked sites that not only attacked me for my position as an expert and coach on character and social skills, but also spread lies about my abilities and track record as a mom to my young children.

It was horrible...and didn't let up for months. I'd get the inflammatory sites taken down, just to have new ones pop up almost immediately. I lost sleep, couldn't eat, and my business suffered. I had to hire a private investigator, and, even get the FBI involved at one point because this individual harassing me happened to be a trained computer security expert.

The cyberbullying and harassment eventually ended, but the resulting damage couldn't be undone. I lost valuable clients at the time, in no small measure because the time and energy it took to defend myself against the attacks took my attention away from them.  You can't build and maintain a healthy business if you aren't able to service your clients in the manner they deserve. While I was able to recover and develop a new client base, the momentum I lost during the time of the bullying left its mark.

In 2010, I wrote my first post about this plague. "Cyberbullying: Different Solutions for a Different Problem" received a lot of attention and plenty of comments from parents, teachers, and the public in general. At that time, it was still a relatively new, but still frightening trend. I'm sorry to say things have only degraded since that original post six years ago, and it's affecting not only adults, but our kids, too. According to Cyber bullying statistics from the i-SAFE foundation, over 50% of teens and adolescents have been bullied online, and, ironically, nearly as many have actually participated in cyberbullying.  Over 25% of these young people report being bullied via text messages or otherwise through their cell phones. More than 1 in 3 of students have been threatened in some form online, and the majority of kids and youth do not tell their parents about the bullying and harassment.

The immediate effects of this kind of bullying is well-documented: the victims are distressed, frequently depression results. All too often, cyberbullying and harassment leads to suicide. But what about the longer-term effects?  There is a significant risk of downstream damage whenever the Internet is used a tool to hurt someone.  What cyberbulllies -- and victims -- do not realize is the potential for hurtful and damaging content posted about someone being dredged up far into the future.  As we have seen, what happens on the Internet frequently stays on the Internet and can pop-up when we least expect -- or want it to.  The things people post online can have a substantial negative effect later when they apply for college, try to get a job, apply for housing and more.  Cyberbullies may find themselves on the wrong side of the law if there is content involving a sexual nature, including sexting, which is a frequent popular activity among teens these days. It may all be a joke...or not. In any case, it's no laughing matter. Imaging the damage to your reputation for years to come if "irresponsible" sexual comments about others made online get  you listed as a sex offender?

And, therein lies the particularly insidious problem: unlike "old school" face-to-face bullying, where at some point the bully hopefully grows up, moves away and stops the nasty behavior, online bullying can take on a life of its own.  Harassing content can be propagated from "friend" to "friend," out to the public and leapfrog its way across social media platforms, search engines and the greater Web itself. You don't know where this stuff will turn up, or under what circumstances. Whether an employer is doing a detailed background check on a prospective new hire, or someone is casually Googling to learn more about a new romantic partner, ugliness from years ago can come boiling back to the surface, with the ability to do as much or more damage than before. You may have gone to great lengths to try to get past dreadful events in your past and thought you were over it, but I can tell you: the Internet does not forget. And, the pain from bullying and harassment can be as fresh to you today as it was when it first happened. Only this time, there may be more at stake than just your high school social circle and whether you have someone to sit with at lunch. Lives can be destroyed, figuratively and literally. And the cruelest part: too often the cyberbully just walks away.

People believe that the "solution" to this problem is in passing stronger laws and legislation, but really, that's not enough. We have laws that govern all sorts of deviant behavior, from public nudity to murder.  Yet, deviant behavior still happens. What will change this behavior is when individuals make a conscious decision to stop treating other people in mean and dehumanizing ways. From our political leaders to the neighbor with a simple fence dispute -- it's going to require that people begin to treat each other with respect and dignity. It's a simple solution, but one that requires personal responsibility and discipline. Maybe that's too much to ask for but I'd like to believe it's possible. I know NOONE will be hurt by trying...

Did you find this post helpful?  Learn more about the epidemic of bullying, why it happens, what doesn't work to stop it -- and what DOES in Corinne Gregory's eBook "Education Reform and Other Myths: Breaking the Bullying Culture."  Also, a big thank you goes out to the folks at Reputation Management who asked me to contribute this piece to their National Cyber Security Awareness efforts.  Check out their website for helpful resources and links.

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