An edited version of this commentary was first published in NVPC’s SALT, “Deleting Cyber-Bullying: Why Laws And Policing Are Not Enough“.
There has been a lot of chatter about cyber-bullying and its perils, though the chatter over solutions has regrettably centred on questionable quick-fixes: to curb, to punish, and to deter.
VoicesTODAY for instance had a recent discussion on the new laws on cyber harassment to “clamp down on cyber-bullies”. It was a question of “[h]ow tough should proposed new laws get with online harassers”. Panellists talked about creating task forces for investigations and prosecution (good luck with the round-the-clock surveillance and incessant complaints from any and all Internet users), punitive measures as retribution and deterrence, and public awareness campaigns to highlight positive behaviour. And education in schools, of course.
I too agree that education is the answer, yet the specifics have been glossed over. How to educate? By telling students that “cyberbullying” is categorically unacceptable; that prospective employers and universities would be less-than-impressed with their track records if they were bullies; that their friends and schoolmates will cast aspersions upon them?
To conveniently dismiss cyber-bullying as a blight to be rid at all costs is too simplistic. Not to mention impossible. First, it is too reductive. Cyber-bullying – like bullying – happens in a broader social context, and has to be understood and dealt with as such. At the moment we are placing disproportionate focus on the harm caused by the perpetrator and the hurt suffered by the victim, and not looking at the factors that might have caused these consequences. Second, there cyber-bullying is constantly presented as a fairly new phenomenon. The Internet might have made it more convenient to go anonymous or to spout nasty things more frequently, but why this sudden fascination with cyber-bullying? Shouldn’t it be a case of how-can-we-treat-each-other-better, rather than focusing on a very specific misbehaviour?
Learning opportunities are also consequently lost, especially in our anxiety to “close a case” and “move on from this episode” by urging the parties to bury the hatchet, or by using laws. Nobody really remembers anything meaningful beyond the anger and the outrage.
In most forms bullying cannot be condoned, but we must change our approaches.
The government has sought to do more. The Ministry of Law is mulling the said laws on cyber-harassment, agencies such as the Media Development Authority and the National Library Board are running campaigns to emphasise the importance of respectful social media usage, and a study will survey 3,000 students to assess the ramifications of cyber-bullying and cyberspace addiction. New endeavours cannot neglect the domain of education.
Ultimately if our present anxiety to rely upon legislation per se persists, we could end up with too many cumbersome Band-Aids, but nothing substantial or sustainable for the long-term.