After a disastrous blind date, Cheryl vented her frustrations on Facebook. The next morning, she woke to a barrage of comments on her post. Three people had even shared it on their walls, which drew a lot of responses, too.

Curious about the feedback, Cheryl scrolled through the comments – some friends and strangers sympathised with her, sharing stories of their own bad dates while some wished her better luck next time.

But these friendly comments were lost in a barrage of hateful remarks which Cheryl never expected – jokes and jibes about her personal appearance along with taunts telling her to lose weight and lower her expectations.

The personal attacks, from people listed as her “friends” on Facebook and people she didn’t know, rained down relentlessly on Cheryl.

At 28, she thought she was past being the target of bullies.

“I am a confident person. I’m good at my job which keeps me busy and happy. But these nasty comments got to me and I felt really awful about myself. It went on for days and I tried to ignore the comments but they became really personal. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone about it,” shares the graphic designer who has stopped sharing anything personal on her social media page.

Bully

Attacks on social media are so relentless victims are often traumatised. Photo: 123rf.com

While concerns on cyberbullying usually revolve around children and teens, a recent study by Universiti Malaya (UM) senior lecturer Dr Vimala Balakrishnan found that adults are also vulnerable. About 44% of the 399 young adults surveyed (aged 17-36) have been bullied online in the last six months. An alarming 35% admitted they have bullied someone online within the same time frame and 70% said that they had witnessed cyberbullying on social media platforms.

Dr Vimala believes that the actual numbers could be higher than the figures polled.

“As an adult, it is not easy to admit that you are a bully or have been bullied because you’re supposed to be able to handle such situations.

“Still, the poll is a clear indication that (cyber) bullying is prevalent not only in school but even after we leave the school yard,” says the senior lecturer at UM’s Department Of Information Systems, under the Faculty of Computer Science and Information Technology.

Bully

Dr Vimala Balakrishnan

Cyberbullying is the use of digital technological tools and platforms to intentionally hurt, shame or harass another person repeatedly.

It usually takes the form of individual harassment (when a person is attacked through private messages) or public humiliation (when the attacks are public), or both.

Cyberbullies often show no sense of remorse, even when their victims implore them to stop or show that they have been hurt.

Perverse fun

One the most disturbing findings from Dr Vimala’s study is the overwhelming number of respondents (43%) who feel that cyberbullying happens because people view it as a form of entertainment.

“A disturbingly large number of respondents feel that cyberbullying takes place because it is ‘fun, satisfying and pleasurable’. This is very troubling … how can anyone think that harassing or shaming someone is pleasurable? Cyberbullying isn’t a laughing matter and the fact that people think it’s entertaining is alarming,” she says.

Short film director and YouTuber Sidney Chan, 27, knows exactly what it is like to be the butt of such “jokes”.

“I was bullied in school because I was different and socially awkward. When I entered university, I found a close group of friends. But one of my course-mates bumped into a bully from high school and they started sharing embarrassing stories about me on my Facebook wall.

“I felt betrayed by them and haunted by the memories. At 22, I had done so much with my life and someone from my past decided to bring up my worst moments in school.

“It was heartbreaking but my course-mate just saw it as a joke,” shares Chan, a psychology graduate.

It wasn’t fun for Chan and it isn’t fun for anyone bullied online. Sometimes, the trauma can lead to tragic consequences.

The consequences

Recently, 20-year-old university student Teh Wen Chun took his own life in Penang after leaving a suicide note on his Facebook page. According to news reports, Teh’s father, Beng Hock, 49, believes that his son was bullied online. He shared that his son’s behaviour began to change after some college mates started shaming him online. Teh assured his family that he was fine but a few weeks later, he ended his life.

Bully

Cyberbullying is all the more vicious because people make remarks online that they’d not say face to face. Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani

Chan was fortunate to be able to cope with his bullying. He chose to ignore his friends’ posts, even refusing to defend himself from their disparaging comments.

Instead, he focused on his studies and made sure he excelled in his work. At college, he became active in extra-curricular activities which enabled him to make new friends.

“When people bully you online and post nasty things about you, there is a tendency to try and clear your name because you feel a great injustice is being done against you. But sometimes it’s better to ignore (these comments) because if the bully sees the impact the comments have on you, they will have more fun with it.

“People feel entitled to be nasty and often, bullies have a ‘group mentality’ … they band together to make fun of you. I really felt as if everyone had banded together against me.

“And yes, some people view these threads as entertainment. Haven’t you seen people type ‘grabs popcorn’ in the middle of such threads. It’s as if they are sitting back and enjoying it,” shares Chan who went on to use that painful experience for his undergraduate thesis on the profiles of cyberbullies.

In her focus group discussion with undergraduates to gauge their awareness of cyberbullying issues, Dr Vimala found a lack of understanding about what constitutes cyberbullying and how it effects victims.

“Out of the 16 young adults in the group, many didn’t actually know what cyberbullying was. I think we really need to talk about this issue, and both children and adults need to be educated on how to behave online,” says Dr Vimala.

Social media effects

Although most of the respondents admitted to being on social media regularly, they didn’t realise that by ‘liking’ or sharing certain content online, they are indirectly participating in and encouraging the act of bullying. Instead, the common perception is that if someone puts personal information on social media, they are opening themselves up for criticism or praise.

“The Internet has changed the way we communicate. It has simplified our lives in many ways but unfortunately it has also made it easier for bullies to act. People believe that once a person puts something out (on social media), they are “asking for it”, she says.

Dr Anasuya Jegathevi Jegathesan, a licensed counsellor and academic head of the Masters in Counselling Programme at HELP, believes that bullies have to be “called out” for their inappropriate acts.

“If you witness cyberbullying, call out the bully and their actions. Tell them they have gone too far and that bullying is just unacceptable. We need to create an awareness that societal rules still apply when we go online.

“It is never alright to threaten someone, it is not all right to stalk and call people names or say things that you would be too shy to say face to face. People need to realise that on the other side of the computer or phone is a human who can be easily hurt and damaged,” she says.