After 26 comments this digital conversation has become a full blown attack, a barrage of cruel taunts and mob-like harassment, towards a 17 year old girl. This thread of 26 comments has now transcended the playground to invade her bedroom, her personal space. The bullies have now overrun her Facebook site, forcing her to relive the verbal brutality of her peers over and over again. And to think this all started out as a harmless comment.
This story I am sorry to say is not a fictional account. Several days ago a young girl from our church was verbally victimised by several of her peers through Facebook, a social networking website. While many comments made by her peers seemed relatively harmless to begin with, it was not long before a pack mentality developed amongst several aggressors who quickly transformed postings into a very public attack against this teenage girl.
While several people tried to reconcile the teenagers involved or even dissuade them from quarrelling in such a public manner, the bullying persisted as hundreds of online friends looked on.
While this particular incident has since dissipated after several young adults eventually intervened, the sad fact is that most cases of digital harassment (or cyber-bullying as it is often referred) are not reported by victims and the vast community of online users who often witness many of these threatening and demeaning postings.
As a Christian who has recently joined the social networking phenomenon that is Facebook, I have begun to question what my responsibility and attitude will be towards the growing trend of online harassment and abuse that reportedly affects 31 percent of 14-17 year olds and 21 percent of 10-13 year olds (Microsoft/Galaxy Research, 2008).
Although I chose to refrain from posting a comment during the cyber-bullying incident I mentioned earlier, this decision was not made lightly. After reading several of the posts, I felt a real dilemma over which course of action to take, both as a Christian and a friend. If I was to make a comment along with these other posts, how could I deter the bullies and their taunts, without turning into a bully myself? How could I safeguard myself from playing their game, from making a comment that compromises all that I stand for?
You know how easy it can be to make the mistake. It starts off with a comment that seems relatively harmless. I sit back and hope my words have an effect on the bullies. I hope that the tormenting will stop. However, a sarcastic or cruel reply quickly ensues.
Now what do I do? Do I respond to the bully? Do I debate with them online? How can I stop it from spiralling out of control?
For some of my friends, deleting online profiles has been their solution to many of these concerns. Through disconnecting with online networks and communities, many of these people no longer feel exposed to or victimised by this growing problem of online harassment. Although I too have questioned whether to maintain an online profile, the dilemma for me was never really about social networking sites or even computers. It was about how we as Christians can act responsibly in settings fraught with various challenges and trials.
How we could resist the temptation to make snarky retorts, to post rude and sarcastic remarks, to show off in front of hundreds of online friends through putting others down. How do we resist taking the easy road, which is to simply ignore or even excuse bullies, in whatever medium they exist?
How do we face these dilemmas and maintain a Christian attitude?
Lately I've been thinking a lot about Jesus and how he would compose himself in an online environment fraught with bullies. I thought about how he would challenge online tormentors and diffuse situations. I thought about what he may say to victims of bullying, how he may comfort and counsel them.
However the more I thought about this the more I realised that Jesus had in fact confronted bullies many times during his time on earth. He had been beaten by bullies, mocked by authorities and consistently insulted by those who felt they knew better. But in every instance, I never once saw Jesus seek revenge against them. I never saw him belittle or embarrass them to further his agenda. Instead, Jesus instructed us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).
Jesus always protected and supported those who were bullied, weak and frail like the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8. I saw how he counselled and encouraged those who felt alone. He always defended the oppressed whilst condemning bullies for their unkind words and hateful feelings in a way that never once compromised who he was and what he stood for.
So despite the prevalence of cyber-bullying today, I have personally decided to maintain my online profile. After witnessing the cyber-bullying incident involving my young friend several days ago, I now feel a real responsibility to maintain a presence in this environment, even if it is a virtual one.
Through following a Christ-like example, I hope to provide guidance, support and hopefully challenging words to those currently experiencing or perpetrating cyber-bullying.