BEIRUT: In the beginning of the film “The Social Network,” Mark Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend, in response to him posting her name and bra size online, leaves him with these parting words: “The Internet’s not written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink. ”That statement is as true now as it was a decade ago when what would become the world’s largest social networking site was conceived.
Today, everyone is vulnerable to online bullying and harassment – particularly adolescent girls, who have to contend with the pressures of image exhibition and voyeurism in an age of mass information-sharing.
“I think it’s getting worse,” says Tala Saadeh, a second year student at the American University of Beirut, as she looks back on the three years since she was last in high school.
During that time, countless new apps and websites have been developed which allow people to talk both to and about each other, many of which offer anonymity for users.
Back at school, she says, one of her classmates – who was never identified – set up a Gossip Girl-style Facebook page that revealed private and embarrassing information about students on a weekly basis, mimicking the popular American TV show.
Every Wednesday night, students would dread waking up the next morning for fear that their name might be on the list.
In one of the worst cases of humiliation, it was revealed that a 13-year-old girl from the school had lost her virginity with her boyfriend, who was also at the school.
Although there were no repercussions for him, the girl was called several names, including a whore.
In another case, a girl at the school was adulated in comments about her beauty after she posted her profile picture on Facebook. It wasn’t long before she realized that the comments were intended to be sarcastic.
In both cases, the girls were able to rise above the bullying and continue with their studies.
Sadly, not all victims of cyberbullying are able to overcome the abuse.
Some become isolated, some fall behind with their work, and some even change schools.
In the most extreme cases, victims have taken their own lives.
A rash of such suicides in North America and Europe has provoked outrage and prompted calls for the legal protection of victims and punishment of perpetrators. So far, such severe incidents haven’t been reported in the Arab world, although the prevalence of such online behavior certainly appears to be growing across the globe.
Cyberbullying is defined as the repeated harassment by means of digital communication technology. The U.S. National Crime Prevention Council describes it as “when the Internet, cellphones or other devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person.”
It is often done anonymously as a way to control or humiliate the victim.
A 2013 survey by the U.K. anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label found 70 percent of young people had been victims of cyberbullying. Some 37 percent of these people experienced it on a frequent basis, while 20 percent faced it on a daily basis.
Beirut-based social media consultant Ayman Itani has seen a genuine interest on the parts of parents and schools to address the problem, and he believes it is “only a matter of time” before there is legislation to deal with it. At the moment there is none.
Cyberbullying isn’t limited to young people, although when it happens with adults it is typically referred to as cyberstalking or harassment. However, it is still the same behavior – taunting someone through digital means.
The phenomenon has been getting more attention in recent years as it becomes more commonplace and people begin speaking out against it. Many schools are becoming increasingly involved in teaching children – and sometimes parents – about using their digital devices responsibly.
Marj Henningsen, former head of the Wellspring grade school in Beirut, says that bad online and mobile phone behavior has meant she has had to remind students and parents about the basic guidelines of social media use and etiquette.
To start with, she told them that a Facebook user needed to be at least 13 years of age. “At the time we had this problem, all the users were underage,” she says.
She recalls being contacted by parents who were asking for help solving the problem of mean “jokes” and comments sent digitally.
“I officially informed parents of this issue and recommended they disable their children’s accounts until they were of age.”
As a school, she says they didn’t have the resources or authority to police kids’ use of the Internet at home.
“At school all we can do is try to educate students about good digital citizenship. We can also in general try to support children in growing up to respect the dignity of others and to refrain from engaging in hurtful behavior such as cyberbullying.”
To her surprise, she discovered that families were also part of the problem.
“One unexpected issue that came up was that sometimes older siblings and parents actually got involved in the online bullying and escalated it well beyond what the original problem was between the kids themselves,” she says.
“Parents obviously ought not to engage in the very same behavior they are complaining about and that is harmful to their own kids.”
Hani Asfour, who has three children aged 10, 16 and 19, has found that the best way to teach them responsibility is to have an open line of communication and trust. He doesn’t monitor their accounts, and doesn’t block their access to online sites, believing in the Arab proverb: “Everything forbidden is desirable.”
But for those who do misbehave, whether due to poor parenting or not, the anonymity they are granted online often makes it difficult to track them – especially if they are more tech-savvy than those investigating them, as is often the case with young computer hackers.
Just like Saadeh, AUB student Sara Baba says one of her fellow students, a highly skilled hacker, established a gossip site at her high school with daily reports on his classmates – whether fact or fiction.
Baba says that one day after she had been hanging out and chatting in a classroom alone with her boyfriend, the site reported that they were in the room having an argument because she had cheated on him.
Even though she says she didn’t cheat on him – and didn’t even have an argument with him that day – wherever she would go in school after that people would call her a cheater. Although she and her boyfriend managed to stay together for a while, she says it was unpleasant for both of them to hear false rumors about themselves.
When Baba tried to stop the hacker by sending a message to the site claiming to be a school administrator, he responded by saying he knew who she was and threatening other students by saying he would reveal the identities of the site’s anonymous posters.
The final straw came when someone took some of her personal photos to use for a fake profile. Since then, she has become much more careful about what she shares online, and has put her Facebook pictures on a privacy setting so only her close friends can see them.
Now she worries about other young women who might not understand the dangers of revealing too much about themselves online – either in writing or images.
She points to photo messaging app Snapchat, which she says is used by many teenage girls to send naked pictures to their boyfriends – known as sexting. The image is automatically deleted seconds after being sent, but she thinks many girls don’t understand the recipient can easily download the image anyway.
Her advice to younger girls: “Don’t waste all your time online.”
Saadeh adds: “Once something goes up it never goes down. It can be online forever.”