Keyboard Courage (Part One)

This is the first in an Armed with Science two-part series about cyber bullying

(graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer)

(graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer)

Cyber bullies are everywhere.

They’re antagonistic and insulting.  Intentionally confrontational.  In many cases even racist, homophobic, sexist, or just plain prejudice.  And, just like any other social parasite, trolling cyber bullies grow with every negative response they get.  They’re not always easily dismissed, either.  You can’t just walk away from the stream of insulting comments they started on your Facebook wall, now can you?

I call this effect “keyboard courage”.

The keyboard is to the user what the bottle of alcohol is to the drinker.  Like alcohol, the inhibitions and judgments that would normally be there are absent when the user (bully or victim) takes to the keyboard.  This choice causes people to make damaging, embarrassing, or in some cases dangerous and even illegal mistakes.  They can be uncharacteristically violent, or oppositional, or emotional.

And sometimes when you start letting the vitriol flow you have a hard time stopping.  Or ignoring.  Or turning the other cheek.  It can even become an obsession.  This keyboard courage is giving trolls an avenue to ply their terrible trade, and it’s causing more than just angst and mild irritation.

In many cases, this kind of behavior can result in physical or psychological damage to others.

Dr. Mark Fisher is the Chief of Behavioral Pediatrics at the Military Mental Health Clinic on Fort Meade, MD.  He says there are several factors that come into play when we talk about cyber bullying and why, not the least of which being the fact that a lot of communication that happens these days is, in fact, on a more digital level.

“A lot of times I think kids, in this generation, that’s just the way they talk,” Dr. Fisher explains.  “It’s Facebook.  It’s texting.  It is cyber.”

Which is true; a lot more is said these days online than in generations past.  Kids are growing up being able to communicate to each other in this way, so it’s changing the game when it comes to what you should and shouldn’t say.  Or type, as it were.  Unfortunately, the Internet can also serve as a platform to attack, ridicule, criticize and harass.

The soapbox effect that the Internet has on the loud and the discontented is resonant.

The Internet (for all its awesomeness) is a way to impose on people where the physical threat, at least in the moment, comes off as minimal or nonexistent, Dr. Fisher explains.  It presents the illusion of safety with the freedom of expression.  And that can have some dangerous consequences.    There are stories all over the news outlets about the harm that widespread digital attacks can have on people.

Do not feed the trolls.  (Graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer)

Do not feed the trolls. (Graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer)

When you confront people online, he says, there is no face.  There is the potential for complete anonymity.   A lot more is said when the potential for immediate physical harm is lowered.  Dr. Fisher also mentions that a lot is lost in translation when it comes to texting and communicating online.

The non-verbal subtleties that we naturally pick up on when speaking in person are absent in that communication avenue.

This presents the opportunity for miscommunication.  Things could be taken out of context, or easily misinterpreted.  Especially for kids.  Kids are often victims of cyber bully attacks.  Adolescents can also take things personally (even if they’re not likely to admit it), and that means they’re more at risk of being attacked or affected by cyber bullying.

Service members and military families are in no way exempt from this rule.  Especially the military children.

“On the one hand it has the same impact,” Dr. Fisher explains.  “Kids are kids, whether you’re military or not, are being bullied.  What is different with the military kids is they may, at times, be more susceptible [to bullying].”

Military children already have a lot of things to contend with in their life.  They often have to deal with frequent moves, with deployed parents, with making new friends in new places, and even with serious things like death and loss.

That’s a lot of stuff for kids to have to deal with, and that’s not even including the normal kid stresses, like tests and school and friends and dating and all that.  Add the threat of internet destructo-commenters and it can often be too much.

This can also happen by bullying proxy.  Sometimes they feel they have to defend their parents in the eyes of their peers.  Sometimes, sadly, they are even mocked and taunted for having lost parents.  Something that happened even to kids I knew growing up.

“It’s another vulnerability,” Dr. Fisher says.  A vulnerability that can be exploited online, where many military kids might spend their time.  Social media and online interaction might be the only way they have to connect to friends and family since they move around so much.  But if all of this is happening on screen, how do you know how and if it’s affecting them IRL?

Good question.

Here are a few of the warning signs that a cyber bully could be a threat in your friend or child’s life:

-          Check for changes of personality and/or behavior.  If your kid spends time online all the time and suddenly they seem less interested, or they lose interest in the things they once liked doing, that’s a sign that things are not shipshape.

-          Avoidance of usual things.  They don’t want to go to school.  They don’t want to go near places where they could run into their peers.  They don’t want to change for PE.

-          Extreme onset apathy.  Their grades drop when once they were a good student.  They become introverted, anxious or disassociated.  They always seem worried or uncomfortable.

-          Regressive behavior.  Younger kids under duress experience this, Dr. Fisher explains.  They might wet the bed, or suck their thumb, or act uncharacteristically childish.

-          Suicide attempts.  This is the most severe and dangerous sign that something is wrong.  If your child attempts suicide, immediately get them help.

Now, many could argue that these are just the growing pains of being a teenager, but there’s more to it.  These are signs of depression and anxiety, and for as much as it might be a gray area between teenage angst and depression, it’s not good to ignore the signs, no matter how common they may be.

Part Two of Keyboard Courage will post on Monday, 17 June 2013

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Thanks to Dr. Mark Fisher for his contributions to these articles

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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