A CRITICAL implication of Covid-19 is the development of cyberbullying that has taken the form of online harassment, Internet trolling and sexual cyberbullying that is severely detrimental to mental health. As it gives rise to a variety of negative emotional responses, namely anxiety, depression, fear, stigma, social isolation, humiliation and suicide, its prevention is needed more than ever before.

Although cyberbullying is not a new phenomenon to Malaysia, Covid-19 imposed a radical change that occurred overnight along with incremental pressures that have swept the nation since, promising a menacing cyberspace both internationally and domestically.

Indeed, the Movement Control Order (MCO) demanded a behavioral shift that drastically reduced human-to-human interaction and further saw an increase in the use of Malaysian cyberspace as primary means of socialisation. As the transition began, employers were forced to work from home, so too were children and students, as offices and classrooms observed a digital transformation.

In the first two weeks of the MCO, there was more than a 30 per cent spike recorded in Internet usage. Although this is not an issue in itself, cyberbullying has been a pre-existing social problem for Malaysia. Thus, the more time spent on digital platforms combined with the general lack of awareness on this prevailing issue has increased the exposure and susceptibility of vulnerable individuals.

Furthermore, the dangers of cyberbullying lie in the imbalances that the Internet gives a perpetrator, such as the power of anonymity, the limited options of escape for victims and the fact that cyberbullying is not limited by time and space.

For instance, there was a fatality in May when a cyberbullying case ended in the suicide of a 20-year-old girl in Penang who was reported to have been emotionally tormented on several social media platforms. There were also reports of online bullying and sexual harassment of two DAP state assemblymen who received messages of murder and rape on their social media accounts.

These incidents raise alarms over gender-based violence in the digital sphere. A more hopeful and notable point is that cyberbullying and its fatalities are ultimately preventable. As the world becomes more virtually dependent, it is crucial that every corner of society becomes more digitally literate and is kept well-informed about the harmful nature of cyberspace and its negative impact on mental health in order to protect the more vulnerable.

There are three general tiers of responsibility that need to be recognised, if not emphasised, as a starting point — the individual, the family and the wider community; social media platforms, and laws and legislation.

In terms of the first responsibility, more effort is needed to increase consciousness and encourage moral policing. This includes a deeper understanding of the language and psychology of cyberbullying i.e. when’s the line between constructive criticism versus bullying is crossed.

Bystanders, parents, teachers and the wider community also play a crucial role in recognising the common behavioral signs that victims of cyberbullying
display. There is a collective responsibility that includes basic intervention and prevention strategies, and to foster an environment of trust between authoritative figures and victims.

The burden of responsibility that weighs on social media platforms is examined regularly and has somewhat evolved to adopt better control measures that ensure safer user experience. Instagram, for instance, recently announced the introduction of bulk comment deleting, comment pining and tag controlling to give users better control over harmful content.

Despite such restrictions, however, cyberbullying is still able to permeate. Therefore, social media platforms should always promote responsible use of technology.

Finally, the lack of understanding over cyberbullying legislations has added to the negativity where perpetrators and victims both fail to understand the scope of legal protection. Questions have also been raised on whether penalties are adequate or neglect the consequences of cyberbullying and its severity.

We must all uphold these tiers of responsibility and work towards a safer, conscientious environment online.

This article first appeared in New Straits Times on 5 June 2020.


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