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Cyberbullying, Suicide and AI: Technology made it happen and technology has to be the solution

©Kat J on Unsplash

Close to 7,000 beds were empty last night and they'll never be filled again. The children, teens and young adults who slept in them committed suicide as a result of relentless, cruel, unremitting cyberbullying accompanied by in-school bullying, as well. The degree of the problem has not fully been appreciated, according to statistics, which also indicates a marked uptick in the number of reported cyberbullying instances.

More than 47,000 people killed themselves in 2017, or one suicide every 11 minutes. The number is stunning and should give anyone pause when confronted by it. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals in the 10-34 age range. In 2017, 10.6 million adults seriously thought about suicide.

Not all suicide is precipitated by cyberbullying. It can be prompted by depression and anxiety related to work or bullying of any type. The fact that cyberbullying attacks were reported by parents needs further investigation. Reporting is quite different from the actual instances of cyberbullying overall. Not all attacks are reported, and many children/teens may be reluctant to tell their parents about the actions against them. The total number of attacks may be far greater than the study indicates. Forty-three percent of teens have been victims of cyberbullying in the last year. What has facilitated this degree of abuse?

Computers have opened up the world to anyone with access to technology and it is here that vigilance and technology must be employed. The technology was the agent of the abuse. Cyberbullying, worldwide, is on the rise and statistics for 2016 – 2019 show that this technology-generated connection with the entire world has permitted cyberbullying to increase. It has also facilitated these agonizing intrusions into kids’ bedrooms and anywhere in their homes where a computer is kept.

One factor of technology is the ability of individuals to hide behind a mask of anonymity online. A study of over 20,000 individuals in 2018 among adults age 18 to 64 in the US and Canada and adults between 16 and 64 in all other countries revealed information that should be troubling.

In the United States, 26% of responding parents reported their children were victims of cyberbullying. The same survey outlined worldwide parental beliefs about their child having been a victim of cyberbullying. Parents in India reported 37%, in Brazil 29%, in Belgium 25%, South Africa 26%, Malaysia 23%, Sweden 23% and Canada 20%.

The country reporting the least amount of parental awareness of cyberbullying of their children was Russia with 1%. The latter statistic must take into consideration the availability of computers, Internet connection and government control of the internet. Perhaps other factors were at work rather than there being less cyberbullying. What the Russian stat may reveal is less access to the means to engage in cyberbullying.

CDC death rates for children 10-14, US 1999-2014

A graph provides a different perspective of how devastating cyberbullying may be to the victim. The comparison of suicide to auto deaths and homicide shows an unmistakable progression. Deaths from auto accident decreased while suicides in children in the pre-teen and teen years is climbing. Cyberbullying is thought to have a definite role in this new statistical direction.

Increases in cyberbullying can be seen in each category outlined between 2016-2019; previously bullied in the past 30 days, having been bullied during their lifetime, cyberbullied someone over the past 30 days and engaged in cyberbullying of other at any time. All areas have experienced an increase with the greatest increase in the “I have been cyberbullied (lifetime).” The question remains: why do they do it?

Why do they engage in cyberbullying?

The bullies are flexing their new reach via the internet, but the driving force is the same and for the same reasons. “In a large study, 40 percent of students who engaged in online bullying reported not feeling anything after bullying online, while only 16 percent of the cyberbullies reported feeling guilty. Moreover, some students reported online bullying made them feel “funny, popular, and powerful”

Research shows that boys are more likely than girls to engage in traditional bullying (ie, physical and verbal acts that hurt another person, that happen repeatedly, and that make it difficult for the victim to defend himself or herself).

“Boys are also more likely than girls to engage in direct, physical forms of bullying whereas girls are more likely to engage in indirect forms of bullying (eg, ostracism and gossiping). Not surprisingly, girls (13%) more than boys (9%) report perpetrating cyber bullying—an indirect form of aggression. Importantly, more girls (25%) than boys (11%) report being targets of cyberbullying.”

A recent publication, “Cyberbullying, Identification, Prevention, Response,” describes the problem this way:

Cyberbullying occurs across a variety of venues and mediums in cyberspace, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it occurs most often where adolescents congregate.

In the early 2000s, many kids hung out in chat rooms, and as a result that is where most harassment took place. In recent years, most youth are have been drawn to social media (such as Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok/, and Twitter), voice/text chat in popular games (Roblox, League of Legends, Overwatch, PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds, Fortnite) and videosharing and streaming sites (such as YouTube, Twitch, and Live.Me).

This trend has led to increased reports of cyberbullying occurring in those environments. We are also seeing it happen in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) environments, in social gaming sites, and in anonymous apps that come and go on a regular basis.”

Cyberbullying as well as face-to-face bullying does have a strong association with suicide as researchers have indicated. “Those who experienced only school bullying or only cyberbullying were at no greater risk for attempted suicide, while those who experienced both forms of bullying were more than 11 times as likely to attempt suicide compared to those who had not been bullied…” An 11 times greater risk of suicide cannot be ignored by school officials or parents.

Tech firms are fighting back

Countering or stopping cyberbullying may not be something with which internet users or their parents may be familiar. While the major platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, are setting up guards and ways to report offenders, here’s a simple, graphic guide for how to protect yourself on Facebook.

An algorithm for Twitter, developed by researchers at Binghamton University, has been able to pick out cyberbullies from normal users on Twitter with 90% accuracy. The researchers explained, "We built crawlers--programs that collect data from Twitter via a variety of mechanisms (and) we gathered tweets of Twitter users, their profiles, as well as (social) network-related things, like who they follow and who follows them." Using an array of other methods, they were able to classify users into two categories; cyberbullying and cyberaggression.

The two types of users engaged in harassing behavior, made death threats or racist remarks. This is only the first step for the researchers in their attempt to help curtail the behavior. The next phase will be more proactive in nature to aid in defusing cyberbullying.

Facebook has set up websites in both the US and Canada to combat cyberbullying with related pages on the topic. An explanatory PSA (public service announcement) has been uploaded to YouTube.

Twitter is actively fighting against hate speech by removing its blue, verified checkmarks from the profiles of known racists.

Twitter users have also begun their own campaign against cyberbullying. Individual groups have also lent their abilities to the work against cyberbullying. One has provided a state-by-state listing of laws and other efforts to confront the issue.

The work has begun and will continue because those who are bullies will not stop, but no one needs to provide a platform for them.

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