Has there ever been as damaging a word as "banter?" Used euphemistically—mainly in the UK—to excuse a huge gamut of online and offline abuse, victims of bullies are often unable to call out their attackers for fear of being seen unable to take a joke.
Now online safety experts in the UK warn that teens are participating in a new, banter-led cyberbullying trend: roasting. It's inspired by Reddit's notorious "Roast Me" thread, where individuals voluntarily submit themselves to online hate. If you're not familiar with a Reddit roast, people pose with a sign saying "Roast Me," and then wait for the abuse to roll in. "You look like Napoleon Dynamite in drag," opines one anonymous keyboard warrior. Another chimes in with, "Who put lipstick on a dog?"
"Roasting is a trend that we've seen massively kick off this year," explains online safety expert Charlotte Robertson from Digital Awareness UK. "You've got banter, and one up from that you've got roasting." Occurring predominantly on Whatsapp and Facebook messenger groups (which can sometimes include every student in the school year), she explains that the joking will initially be light-hearted.
"Someone might have said something silly in class, for example. Then someone on the group chat will start laying into them, humiliating them. It gets very harsh and personal very quickly." How personal? "Say there's a terrorist attack," Robertson answers. "Someone will post on the group, 'Mohammed, is this your dad?'"
And the scale of the problem is far greater than many realize. "I'd say there's not one child in a senior school who hasn't seen or experienced roasting. It's happening across the country, right now."
Robertson explains that while roasting started off as a predominantly male phenomenon, girls also feel the pressure to be involved in roasting as a competitive activity and a way to show their bravado to teen peers.
Dr Victoria Nash of the Oxford Internet Institute points to research showing that girls are more likely to bully—and be bullied—online. "Cyberbullying can be more about emotional manipulation, rather than physical abuse, which possibly explains why girls might be more drawn to it."
While it's difficult to identify the gender of online abusers, a recent Demos study found women were as likely as men to be offenders. Nash questions why this is seen as remarkable. "It shouldn't be surprising to us that girls are as capable as boys when it comes to online bullying. Girls bully each other in the playground, after all."
For those being roasted, it can seem impossible to come forward and ask for help. Many children self-censor, failing to report cases to teachers or their parents for fear of being seen unable to take a joke. But the effects of roasting can be as great as more straightforward incidences of cyberbullying—a phenomenon which, in its worst cases, has proved fatal.
In 2013, Ask.fm was implicated in the suicide of teenager Hannah Smith after she was taunted anonymously on the social network. The website enables users to ask questions and receive responses from anonymous users: a structure seemingly set up to encourage online roasting and bullying. Ask.fm has been linked by anti-bullying organization NoBullying to a total of seven suicides, prompting the sites' owners to crack down on abuse.
Robertson argues that we need more awareness of the damaging consequences of roasting as a new trend. "It can affect their self-esteem, their self-confidence, sometimes even drive them to self-harm. It disempowers the victim, because they feel like they can't say anything—it's just banter."