Cyber abuse unmasked: Bringing accountability to an out of control world.
Written by Brendan Mooney Psychologist
Cyber abuse is a huge global issue, it affects many children and adults worldwide although its true affect on people and society is unknown. In severe cases of cyber abuse people have committed suicide, in many cases children.
One of the key issues is that people are essentially able to say whatever they like online under the cloak of anonymity. Cyber abuse typically involves a person using a pseudonym (in some cases multiple) to denigrate, defame, abuse, threaten or harass another. In extreme cases this can occur for years. Given that the online environment allows a person to remain anonymous, it easily allows for ongoing levels of irresponsibility not usually seen in other contexts in life.
In short, what people often say online they would never say to your face.
In the offline environment if a person abuses another, whether it be physically or verbally, the police can be called and the person arrested and fined or physically removed to prevent them from continuing their abusive behaviour.
In other words, in the real world there is a consequence to abusive behaviour.
However, abuse is occurring on a massive scale on the internet, yet in the majority of cases people are able to do it without any consequence or penalty of any kind, which encourages abuse to continue.
Is it simply a matter of a lack of laws in Australia preventing police from taking action? Actually there are a number of laws in Australia to address cyber abuse, but they are rarely enacted and hence it is about supporting people to take more responsibly in talking to the police when the abuse occurs and ensuring that adequate action is taken.
This is an issue that affects not only children but adults, relationships and businesses.
The Internet is a big place. It is a playground that allows us to indulge in almost anything we want. But abuse is abuse, and ought never be tolerated just because the person is behind a computer screen and not face-to-face with you.
If we were not able to be anonymous online, there would be far less abuse occurring. There are of course times when anonymity is genuinely useful, for those avoiding political persecution or in sensitive legal matters anonymity can be essential. But for the most part there is not an ongoing reason to be anonymous and surely if that anonymity is abused it should no longer be afforded. There is a reason why the Ku Klux Klan masked themselves to carry out their vile acts, lack of visibility equals lack of accountability. Why when this is lack of visibility is translated to an online environment does this standard waiver? We don’t allow a person wearing a helmet to enter a convenience store yet we defend the right of anonymity in nearly every public space online regardless of the impact this has on others' wellbeing.
When the notion of bringing more accountability to the online environment is raised, people sometimes argue it is against their right to freedom of speech. However:
Freedom of speech does not mean freedom to abuse
For example, we could say we generally have freedom of movement in society, unless we are imprisoned, we are free to go wherever we like in a public space, but as writer Rebecca Asquith notes, “just because we have this freedom of movement does not mean we should be able to just walk down the street and wave our fists about and punch people in the face. The intention behind the movement, just like the intention behind the expression always comes into play. If the sole intent of an expression is to cause harm, we need to question whether it should be championed as an inalienable 'right' or scrutinised as a form of communications abuse, especially since we are seeing that the results of such abuse have very real world consequences.” Online the punches are emotional not physical, but are no less tangible to those on the receiving end as evidenced by the rise in recent years of mental health conditions and suicide in relation to online abuse.
A recent video campaign by All Rise Say No To Cyber Abuse is spot on in illustrating this point and also highlights the prevalence of abuse amongst adults as well as young people (watch the video below).
Unfortunately when it comes to addressing cyber abuse, it appears there is a lot of apathy amongst people in Australia, and also around the world. People often describe the problem as ‘too big’ or ‘what can one person do’ etc. and simply give up and take no action at all. However, if we continue to allow this type of abuse without addressing it, it will not stop. We have already seen a substantial increase in this type of abuse in recent years. Only when enough people demand there be accountability and responsibility on the internet will we see authorities and governments take adequate action. It is about working together and seeing that this type of abuse is not ok, and that we all have a responsibility to sensibly address it.
It is clear that far more community discussions are needed to bring accountability in what is now our foremost public space, the Internet, a space that is currently rife with enormous levels of abuse and irresponsibility.
More will be written in an upcoming series of articles on this topic. If you would like to read more be sure to subscribe to receive email updates.
BIOGRAPHY Psychologist Brendan Mooney works with adults, adolescents and children. With a genuine interest in people's well-being, Brendan brings a warmth, practicality and an equality that supports clients to truly address underlying issues and blockages that are preventing them from moving forward.
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