The Invisible Adversary: Cyberbullying Adds A Dark Twist To Childhood
As published on Forbes.com.
How is bullying online related to bullying in the schools? originally appeared on Quora: the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
Two boys bullied me during separate times in my youth.
The first boy was named Chris; he was eight years old and a full grade ahead of me. He was well polished; he lived with his family in a life of opulence and he was very athletic. It seemed his every want was provided, be it clothing, sports equipment, or toys. But his behavior was very dark in manner. He relished competition and he seemed to take pleasure in humiliating others while hiding behind the veil of “sport”. When he wasn’t thrashing an opponent on a field or belittling his haram of followers with his harsh words, he was honing his bullying skills on me. I was the antithesis of Chris, a doughy seven year old with matted hair, an unkempt appearance, and little interest in the same pastimes.
Looking back, it is easy to understand why my very presence made Chris seethe. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. He quickly targeted me and my day-to-day life became one of anxiety and fear. I soon found other ways to walk to school just to avoid him. I would even leave ridiculously early sometimes from my house and wait outside the school doors until they opened. I lied to my parents and told them that I was going to go play basketball with friends before class started.
After almost a year of abuse, merciful fortune intervened and my torment ended. The summer before third grade, Chris and his family moved. I just remember being so overjoyed; it felt like I had been given a new lease on life.
And then Robbie showed up and took Chris’s place.
Robbie was nothing like Chris. If one could define a home as “broken,” Robbie’s would be considered “shattered.” Robbie was much more physical, more violent, hardened to a world that had been hard on him. Where Chris tortured with his presence, Robbie tortured with his fists. I could actually hear him giggling as he reigned punches down on my body, showing a malicious glee in the pain he inflicted. He had thick, oily black hair and liked to curse and smoke. He had been suspended from school before and carried a knife. He was terrifying and he was only in fifth grade.
I became introverted to escape the hurt and the humiliation. My parents pleaded, shouted at the school for help, but to no avail. My father, a massive man standing a broad-shouldered six-foot seven inches, took matters into his own hands and had an “animated” conversation with Robbie’s single mother. The results were to be expected: A mother who showed the care of a parent who let her child smoke at ten years old.
Again, fortune intervened. Robbie was sent away midway through the school year. His behavior finally caught up with him and he was sent to a reform school, a ward of the state, never to be seen again. For two years I would go untouched, and was finally able to develop in the way that all children deserve.
But the potential for bullying was there. There was always a Chris, always a Robbie waiting in the wings, ready to bully me. It would be Spencer who would stop the cycle of harassment that I had allowed to happen in my life.
Spencer was cut from the same cloth as Chris, the kind of bully who used words and threats to manipulate others. Spencer and I were both in fifth grade, and after class one day he started harassing me in front of a group of kids.
The feelings of humiliation, shame, and anger I had experienced with Chris and Robbie began to fester in me again. But it had been two years. I was taller, leaner than before. For the first time in my life, my bully was an equal. I remember feeling excited that I actually saw his eyes without needing to look up. Spencer really wasn’t that big, he just thought he was.
There is no question that he underestimated me. I remember he said something demeaning and then shoved me, and that was it. It would be the last time anyone ever put his or her hands on me without my permission.
With a volley of haymakers, I reduced Spencer to a huddled mass on the ground. He was crying, blubbering and rambling about how he was “only kidding,” begging me to stop using him as a training bag. In the melee I ended up hurting my right thumb so severely that I can still pop it out of place at will. A party trick for a lasting, fond memory.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but can’t deny: It was a great, empowering feeling that I cherish to this day. I felt like I could finally defend myself, that I wasn’t under the control of another person. But I also learned from the experience. I came to realize that a bully was someone so insecure about themselves that they took their self-hatred out on others to feel like something more. It defines some of the worst human behaviors, and it’s something that I have worked hard to not be like in my life.
In hindsight, I consider the experience a privilege that was bestowed on me. That may seem strange, but I see it as a rite of passage that occurred. I was afforded the opportunity to confront a real enemy and stand up to my fears. I was able to look across and see the eyes of my adversary, I was able to feel my muscles flex as they impacted his weak jaw. I tasted the iron in my mouth from the pump of adrenaline. In that, I found a buried weapon in me that I could draw at will. It was courage, and it was there forever.
But cyberbullying has changed all that now. Where the arena was once one of fists and fights, it’s now one of wits and words. Where bullying used to be a game of checkers, it has evolved into a game of chess. The chances to confront your enemy are gone. The chance to find your courage can be found, but not the way I found mine.
There are other issues as well. In my day, I only worried about Chris or Robbie. It was a personal problem, and my problem alone. The other kids did not want to get involved one way or the other. Some felt guilty at how I was treated; others just didn’t want to risk getting in trouble with the school or their parents. Some kids were just scared that they could wind up being the next target on the bullying hit list. No one would help me but at least I could count on no one coming to give Chris or Robbie a hand. After all, no one jumped forward to defend Spencer.
Cyberbullying takes all of these things away, yet still causes the lasting suffering in the victim. The bully can never really be conquered. It only goes away when the attacker grows tired of humiliating the victim. How do you stand up to a nameless, faceless adversary? How do you stare down your fears when all that stares back is the glow of an electronic screen?
The bully has all the advantages, all the support. There are literally millions of outside voices from across the globe waiting to send words of encouragement, to laugh at the abuse, to admire the humiliation of an embarrassing photo or video … Did you ever hit “like” on a certain social website after you watched something embarrassing happen to someone else? Congratulations, you’ve just empowered a bully and added to someone else’s humiliation.
And the worst part? It never stops, at least not in the mind of the victim. Conventional bullying is an isolated incident, one that lingers around the classrooms for a while, through the whispers of the halls as the victim makes their way through the school day. But cyberbullying has the lasting potential to be everywhere and forever. Think about it, personalize it: Anywhere you go, for the rest of your life, you run from a posted picture or an embarrassing video. Teachers, students, parents, and even family and friends hundreds of miles away are now privy to your humiliation, your shame. In a moment of weakness you let someone take a risqué picture of you and now you’re a slut. A kid beat you to a pulp and his friends recorded the moment on their smartphones to load online. Now you’re a wimp, a target for other students to pick on, for a world to pick on.
The seeds of cyberbullying are being planted now and will eventually sprout into something terrible later in life in the victims. Some of these victims will look to take it out on others while some will look to take it out on themselves. Some will do nothing, but all who have been victimized will remember.
I don’t remember much about my youth, but I still remember Chris and Robbie. Cyberbullying is the magnification of the abuse that I experienced without the option to stand up to it.
Jason Wells is the President and Founder of the National Advancements for Proactive Safety, an educational non-profit organization committed to providing a safe community through intervention processes. He is a former Special Agent with the United States Secret Service, and holds a Masters of Science with highest honors in Strategic Security and Protection Management. Mr. Wells is currently pursuing his doctorate in Strategic Security with a focus on proactive interventions to stop threat-related behavior. Additionally, he is a weekly contributing writer to the online publication Robious Corridor and has been featured in the Huffington Post, and Forbes. His first book on proactive safety will be out this Fall. Jason can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.