It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that this world in which I now live is neither the world into which I was born, nor that in which I grew up, but rather it is a strange alien place, I am a stranger in a strange land.
I’ve always felt alienated and terrified by teenagers and their self-governing village/gossip/tribe-like social regimes in schools and where ever else they roam on a daily basis. Being one myself was a particularly traumatic experience, and I am thankful that it is a time long gone.
The movie ‘Cyberbully’ reminds me just how long gone that is. Today’s teenagers grow up in a world so pervasively integrated with technology that their ‘school yard’ is everywhere, anywhere, anytime. Thanks to social media, young people live on a social scene that is just like the Australian bush in hot summer … it takes only a small spark to set their whole world ablaze!
That is what happens to Taylor in the movie below.
(Cyberbully – The full movie)
Bullying and ostracism in the Pre-Internet era
When I was a teenager bullying was much simpler.
Except for a few sporadic (scary) episodes, I haven’t been bullied during my school time. I have been teased, and felt there was a bit of an attitude towards me in my class expressed in *sighs*, eye rolling, ignoring, implicit comments and a dragging pronunciation of my name when I asked questions in class … But there was no evil witch hunt, no severe crossing boundaries, more like a nagging role I could not get out of.
I was a relative new comer in my class, having started in year 4 while most of my classmates had known each other since kinder garden. Two of my classmates had welcomed me into their little clique from the start, and they were my friends and the only ones I could relate to all the way through my school years there. I had no social mobility… When I wasn’t in the good books with my 2 friends then I was miserable, because I had no where else to go. But under normal circumstances I was fine.
A girl in my class was not so lucky, I’ll call her Sybil. Sybil had been the outcast of the class since kindergarden because she was:
‘boring, she has boring hair and clothes, and the way she talks and eats with her braces on is disgusting’
Source: one of my 2 school friends
Sybil was like a ghost no one noticed or considered a real person. My friends hated her with a passion, maybe because she was just a bit further down in the social hierarchy than us. No one thought anything of talking trash about Sybil, that was just natural. It was considered to be somehow her own fault.
The Club That Hates Sybil
I recall a meeting my friends and I had on the balcony of my home, complete with notebooks and markers, planning our newest project: a dog club.
We were 5 kids around 11-12 years old*: myself, my 2 school friends, my best friend (who was outside of my school), and a third school friend who belonged in our little group albeit she was most often absent.
So: we were brainstorming club rules and activities and a name for the club. The winning name was ‘The Dog Club’. However, ‘The Club That Hates Sybil’ was a close contestant and temporary working draft name until ‘The Dog Club’ was finally decided. ‘The Club That Hates Sybil’ was ditched eventually because it was a slightly irrelevant name for a dog club after all, and too school-related (my best friend didn’t know Sybil). It wasn’t a moral question.
In hindsight, Sybil sure knew there was an attitude against her – after all no one talked with her. However, she wouldn’t have heard much of what was actually said about her. No one was ever rude to her face to face. And she probably didn’t hear about ‘The Club That Hates Sybil’.
A social butterfly breaks out of the closet
One day in year 7 or 8, Sybil came to school with a new look. Unlike ever before she wore make-up and perfume (a lot!), her long fairy hair was waving in a gently curling bob, she was dressed in totally out-of-character trendy clothes and behaved in a bubbly, smiling and talkative manner. A shocking transformation.
The girls in class instantly became more friendly and interested in her. Hairstyles, make-up and fashion had their fancy and was something they liked to talk about, but they didn’t totally let her in at friends-level.
Sybil then charmed the girls in the parallel class, who had never noticed her before. Within a week she belonged in a clique, had friends and was popular; which enforced her new vibrating and mingling personality. It was like a grey worm had transformed into a colourful social butterfly. It is the most rapid and baffling social turnaround I have ever seen.
Her fairy tale transformation also turned her into friends material for my friends and made my position more vulnerable. I was probably the 2nd lowest girl in the social hierarchy, near the edge between inclusion and exclusion. When Sybil was ‘in’ then I was ‘out’, so it seemed… someone had to be the Omega wolf* of the teenage pack.
Unlike in typical fairy tales, the heroine turned out to have a mean strike. Sybil was gossipy and two-faced once she had the social influence to be so; she would be friendly and ingratiating with someone, and then readily trash-talk them behind their back with someone else. I never quite figured her out or trusted her. However, I acknowledge the magnitude of her social transformation and admire her for proving it possible.
Cyberbullies: bullying gone pan-epidemic!
How would the story have turned out, had it taken place in the age of the Internet?
In the age of the Internet Sybil would surely have been familiar with ‘The Club That Hates Sybil’ and all the other social poison. All the insults would have been on record, right there on Twitter or Facebook to jump out in her face, visible even to people who never met her. Bullying and ostracism get pan-epidemic properties online; it spreads exponentially across wide distances.
The movie ‘Cyberbully’ suggests that Internet communication removes teenagers from feeling the consequences of their actions when they bully online, so that even kids that aren’t normally school yard bullies may bully online. The kids know that they are being mean of course, but they don’t fully grasp the magnitude of the damages their insults cause once their words snow-ball through the social media landscapes and accumulate comments.
It probably won’t surprise anyone that various studies link cyberbullying to increased suicide rates for the victims.
That doesn’t have to mean that the Internet is a bad for vulnerable teenagers. While Cyberbullying didn’t exist when I was young, all the Internet-enabled opportunities to reach out across boundaries and connect, learn and build virtual relationships didn’t exist either. Ostracism or bullying in school could mean total social isolation and stagnation. The Internet can be an enabler of friendships, belonging, comfort, social development and empowering insights as well as a weapon of psychological destruction.
- Teen’s death highlights cyber bullying trend by Thea Dikeos on ABC NEWS, 2009
- Cyberbullying Rarely Sole Factor in Teen Suicides by Janice Wood on PsychCentral, 2012
- Cyberbullying Statistics. Selected polls from IPSOS and other sources summarised by Puresight Online Child Safety. Commercial website, so TWAGOS**
- Why the internet is my best friend by Catastraphie. Blogpost about how Internet makes social communication easier
This post was inspired by the movie ‘Cyberbully’ (YouTube video above) and the post WTF R KIDZ UP 2? by Springtiger AKA Rory Patton.
*Definition of omega wolf:
The Lowest ranking wolf is known as an Omega (Male or Female). The Omega wolf serves an important purpose by absorbing the packs aggression, thereby maintaining balance within the pack.
(used here as a metaphor for human behaviour)
**Take With A Grain Of Salt