At a young age, we are warned that going on the internet will make us susceptible to targeted harassment and that we should avoid talking to strangers. As a response, we probably rolled our eyes and insisted to our parents that we would not talk to anyone that we did not know. Nonetheless, harassment does not necessarily come from strangers and it is not as rare as we perhaps once thought. According to a study entitled, “Online Harassment, Digital Abuse, and Cyberstalking in America,” conducted by the Data & Society Research Institute and Center for Innovative Public Health Research, 47 percent of Americans aged 15 and older have experienced some form of harassment online. As a result, we can only wonder if we are doing enough to prevent cyberbullying. Considering the aforementioned statistic, the only reasonable answer is: no, we are not doing enough. However, as of now, there appears to be little that we can do to eradicate the epidemic that is online hate speech.
The internet has changed the “boundaries” for bullying and harassment — there are no longer any restrictions. The words that may have once extended only as far as the playground or a dance club can reach the home, becoming incessant and imprinted on another’s social media indefinitely. Even once you “delete” the disparaging comment, the damage is seemingly done. Therefore, we can no longer treat bullying or harassment as a “he said-she said” issue — there needs to be broader and more encompassing restrictions and consequences created in order to lower the alarming statistic. Whether or not these restrictions are possible when the internet is such a vast arena is the root of the conundrum.
In an effort to address the issue, various social media platforms have managed to find ways to monitor words that may be perceived as harmful or a threat. On Facebook, you can go into your settings and choose who is allowed to see your posts and if someone posts something that makes you uncomfortable, you can report the post. Likewise, on Twitter there are various methods to prevent people from harassing you, such as blocking a user or reporting their tweet, which then offers the ability to block them after you have filed your report stating why you feel threatened. Although these options have potential holes in them for those who choose to report anyone with whom they do not agree, they are preventative measures so that our experience online can be safer. Additionally, these developing restrictions are perhaps the stepping-stones for future progress, should technology develop in such a way that we eventually never have to come into contact with any hate-filled, vitriolic comments.
Moving forward, we should aspire to get to a point where we no longer have any fears or reservations about going online. According to the aforementioned study, “More than a quarter of Americans [27 percent] say they have at some point decided not to post something online for fear of attracting harassment.” The internet will perhaps never be a completely safe space since the ability to assume anonymity will always exist. Additionally, the internet community will always find loopholes to circumvent the attempts to create “safe spaces.” However, if we tighten what we consider hate speech and educate children at a younger age that their words online still carry the same significance as they do when expressed verbally, perhaps we will see a significant decline in online fear, as well as a decrease in online harassment.