I think it is safe to say that at this point, people have realized that the Internet is both a terrible and wonderful thing. Of course, there are many examples I could use to back this claim, but the one I’m most concerned with has reared its ugly head in the shape of copious articles about online harassment and bullying.
It seems that no matter what communication technology is popular at a given time, whether it be folded paper notes or quick, acronym-filled text messages, kids will be mean to other kids. Hey, who are we kidding; people in general will be mean to other people. But unfortunately, kids and teenagers can be especially brutal, and as the Internet has grown in accessibility and applications, it has become a major forum for bullies to attack their victims.
As a result of Internet applications like blogs, instant messaging, social networking sites, and media communities like YouTube, kids and adolescents have found it easier than ever to bully one another. No longer do they have to say cruel things to someone’s face – now, they can hide behind a computer screen or an anonymous screen name and say whatever they want without having to face the results.
“The Internet provides the perfect forum for cyberbullies, individuals whose aim is to gain gratification from the distress caused by provoking and tormenting others,” says Bully Online. “The anonymity, ease of provocation, and almost infinite source of targets means the Internet is full of predators from pedophiles targeting children to serial bullies targeting ... anybody.”
But the Internet is also a space in which people who feel disconnected can find others who are also in need of friendship, support, and community.
Pew Internet and American Life Project pointed out how many teens use online communities to make friends. “For some teens it is how they make new friends. ‘I like it. I just like networking, that’s about it,’ said one late high school-aged boy. ‘…my school is pretty big, so if I didn’t know a person I can meet them through MySpace and just see them at school then. That’s how I make friends, I guess.’”
Strangely enough, as much as the Internet provides the perfect opportunity for bullies to attack their victims from a safe distance, it also provides a space for kids to find people who won’t bully them. “For some teens, making friends on social networks is less about finding common ground, and more about avoiding giving offense,” says Pew. “One middle school girl elaborated, ‘I mean, I’m not really making new friends, I’m just not hurting peoples’ feelings. If I know that they’re friends with someone else that I don’t feel like they’re [going to] come and attack me, and so it’s safe.’”
In some ways, the Internet is the poison as well as the antidote. Kids and teens can easily and anonymously harass one another to the point where one of the victims may self-harm or want to end their life (read: Phoebe Prince, multiple suicides of homosexual teens, etc.) but it’s also a place where those same kids can find individuals just like them, suffering in the same way. The outpouring of “It Gets Better” YouTube videos has offered support and understanding to gay teens facing persecution everyday. Without the Internet, this massive effort of support from complete strangers wouldn’t be possible. But the question is: without the Internet, would that kind of support even be necessary? There’s no way to tell.