Bullying is bullying, be it online or off

Fascination with online bullying is often more about the medium than the message

Share

You may remember the awful case of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl who took her own life this summer. Before she died, Hannah was subjected to a barrage of anonymous abuse on the website Ask.fm, and her fate became a national news story that reminded many adults of just how little they knew of their children’s lives online. “We’ve lost Hannah in the most horrendous way imaginable,” said Hannah’s distraught father, David. “It’s time something was done so that no other family has to go through this.”

Aaron Dugmore’s name is probably less familiar. Aaron was nine when he killed himself in February. He was subjected to racist bullying by a group of older pupils at his school in Birmingham. He was allegedly threatened with a plastic knife, and told: “Next time it will be a real one.”

 It would be too reductive for anyone not intimately connected to either case to say that bullying “caused” these deaths: suicide is never simple. It would, likewise, be abhorrent to create some sort of hierarchy of such tragedies. Everyone would agree with this. And yet Hannah Smith’s name is known, and Aaron Dugmore’s is not. Why?

The answer to this, at least, is straightforward enough: Hannah Smith was bullied online. For complicated reasons, we find online bullying shocking in a way that the traditional variety never is. Playground bullying is vile, yes. No one would condone it. And yet for most adults it has resonances that are familiar, and therefore, somehow, less ominous. There were bullies in The Beano, and they would take your lunch money and call you names. But what does that sepia version of childhood cruelty have to do with the age of social networks? Hannah Smith was subjected to the taunts of nameless trolls who urged her to kill herself. How does anyone who grew up before the digital era even begin to make sense of that?

This is one of the most profound markers of the divide that the internet has carved between generations. The width of that gap has been emphasised by a depressing set of survey results that have just been released by the Anti-Bullying Alliance. For 55 per cent of children, the survey found, online abuse is part of everyday life. But 44 per cent of teachers said they didn’t know how to react to cyber-bullying. And 40 per cent of parents said the same thing.

The Anti-Bullying Alliance is right to be concerned, and it identifies important characteristics of online bullying that are new. Bullies can be anonymous, and are therefore freed from the shackles of accountability; their abuse can remove what little control victims do have, by making bullying something that can take place without even their presence; and what might once have been limited local humiliations can suddenly be played out on a frightening global scale, so that video footage of a violent incident at a school in Edinburgh might be laughed at by YouTube users in Los Angeles. These are genuinely novel features.

But that acknowledgement needs a major caveat which is not part of the discussion often enough: the perpetrators of bullying are still people, exhibiting ordinary human nastiness, and when bad things happen, they are not the product of some abstract, inhuman evil that inhabits your family’s wireless router.

It is hard for older people to understand the extent to which young people’s lives are lived online now, such that the clumsy distinctions we generally make between on and offline life are becoming less and less relevant. That means that abuse in the classroom is almost bound to seep into abuse on the Facebook wall. A separate persona for the internet, a barrier that delineates what we type from what we say? That idea makes about as much sense as suggesting that conversations held over the phone somehow don’t count – or that when bad things happen after a phone conversation, it is the handset itself that is at fault. One clear marker of our somewhat irrational horror at this kind of suffering above other childhood traumas is how persistent are the tropes of cyber-bullying in spite of the marked lack of useful data on the subject. There are quite a lot of surveys looking at the ways that children experience online cruelty, but hardly any academic data comparing its prevalence with face-to-face abuse. And yet a cursory glance at the media’s treatment of both would make you think that these days the average comprehensive is an idyll of sensitivity and compassion, protecting its charges from demons that are only unleashed when they switch on their PCs.

This is not surprising: the internet is still just new enough that it makes ordinary things seem exotic, whether love affairs or political protests. And it is quite sensible for anti-bullying charities to attempt to capitalise on this interest. All the same, until someone finds data that suggests otherwise, we might cautiously say that at least some of the lurid headlines on the subject are the product not of a change in the way we live, but of an older generation’s ghoulish fascination.

Modern childhood is too often portrayed as a kind of science-fiction dystopia, full of stalker paedophiles and illicit chemicals. We may think we are looking out for our children with this  obsession – but in the process, we are pushing them further away from us. We are forgetting that in reality, Aaron Dugmore and  Hannah Smith were victims of the same terrible thing.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform