Borrok: Redefining cyberbullying in the age of apathy

Ben Borrok, Columnist

For years, parents and educators have lamented cyberbullying. The conflict that once took place on the battlegrounds of our hallways has now moved to an invisible plane. The threats that make school a harrowing experience for some can no longer be stopped by the adults in the room.

The wounds are internal, not physical. The victim and perpetrator may have never met, communicating exclusively through social media platforms. Cyberbullying transpires through messages, pictures and videos posted to draw attention to an event or coerce someone into changing their behavior. Cyberbullying is prevalent all over the Internet, but here is the thing: It isn’t bullying.

Bear with me. Bullying has both a dragging down and uplifting effect. A bully will seek out the flaws and sensitive spots of another’s personality in order to reconcile for their own shortcomings. Cyberbullying, on the other hand, has no uplifting component. The widespread hate that is prevalent on the Internet doesn’t result in boost of the perpetrators own confidence. Instead, it just arrives at the next victim.

It isn’t that I think the countless victims are lying, nor do I think the overwhelming evidence of hateful messages and pictures are fabricated. However, we can’t associate cyberbullying with “traditional” bullying. In addition to the distinction made above, to use the terms interchangeably both limits the scope of this online phenomenon and ignores the nuances that make cyberbullying different.

The term “bullying” is often strictly associated with school-age children. It implies that cyberbullying too, only exists within the halls of those same schools. But that would be largely ignorant of reality, where cyberbullying is also prevalent amongst adults. I have previously spoken about the concept of the outrage train. This is when behavior deemed unacceptable is shamed on social media by large groups of people through negative tweets, messages and videos. In extreme cases, the Internet mob finds and threatens these people’s jobs and significant others to maximize the effect of their force.

For a while, these online mobs were rooted in a certain logic, preying on those who made wildly offensive comments. Over time, their scope expanded to go after nearly everyone. Whether it be supporting a certain team or showing off their property, such as a new phone or clothes, posts like these always invite someone to seek out a flaw. I want to make clear that there are people online that could do with a little shaming, often when their opinion falls largely outside a universally respected position. The outrage, however, has overwhelmed the vehicle that it once occupied.

Too many people on social media looking for someone to criticize and shame. This may replicate the behavior of bullies, but there is a key component that is missing. It is inevitable that as kids grow up, they will have moments where they will be mean. In school, they can not only look someone in the eyes and test the limits of what they can say, but can also visually sense a reaction from their victim. Many children see the victim’s nose curl up, tears well up in their eyes, and decide they don’t like this feeling. Bullies, on the other hand, decide that having sway over another’s emotions is greatly satisfying to them.

This feeling isn’t possible online. No matter how many messages one may send to their intended target, there is no satisfaction that comes from staring at a screen full of the worst that humanity has to offer. Instead, cyberbullying is fueled by apathy to others’ feelings and situations. People say the first thing that comes to mind without a filter, without concern for how their comments may be perceived by others. The social and physical cues that stop people from saying what they might want to in the real world don’t exist online — only the “post” button stands between someone and reaching their target.

Someone dies tragically, say, to a drug overdose or illness, and the responses of sympathy for their family that we expect if one was to stand face-to-face with these grieving individuals are replaced with a tidal wave of anger. Self-affirming messages criticizing their drug addictions or other vices, claiming they would never allow a family member to travel down the same path. The messages spawn without pity, the Internet scribes are entirely apathetic to their victims and the events that have transpired in their lives.

You have, without a doubt, seen the types of posts I described. Maybe you even participated in a public shaming that left you no better off than you were prior to taking part. Worse, kids have grown up bearing witness to the pure ugliness of social media and have internalized this behavior. On an app like TikTok, where authority figures are few and far between, the subjects of videos and the comments posted to the comment section can be brutal. It is so easy to scroll past a video that bothers you. To decide and leave a response requires the knowledge that you will never have to answer to the person you are hurting or you don’t care that you’re hurting them in the first place.

It may not be bullying. In fact, it may be worse.

The scope is no longer the hallways or playgrounds of our youth, but has expanded to the entire population and their online identities. Just as bullying is taught, so is apathy, a new guiding force in the world. There is something that keeps both victim and perpetrator online: the ability to repeat the behavior onto someone else. We begin to even become apathetic to our own situation, remaining online despite the urgent need for a break. We exist only to respond to others in the worst way we can.

There may be no solution at all, but if we want to begin moving towards an Internet that represents a healthy environment for us and the future, we need to think: Is it truly worth it to post?

Ben Borrok is a Weinberg sophomore. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.