The Ugly Evolution of Cyberbullying
How we progressed from passive-aggressive Myspace bulletins to kids creating two Instagram profiles—one for their friends, another for their bullies.
Illustrations by Calum Heath
Myspace bulletins were the original Facebook status: whiny letters that all your followers could read. When I was 14, I sent out a passive-aggressive bulletin about a girl at school—a "faker"—copying me, which is hilarious considering everyone who used Myspace was an identikit scene kid with the same terrible DIY dye job. Not long after, she bulletined back, and the pettiest war ever broke out in front of our respective followers.
As soon as teenagers were gifted the internet, they used it to digitize their bullying. During the mid 2000s, I saw boys leak nudes of underage girls onto Facebook to humiliate them; collage videos of girls' vacation photos, with nasty captions; slut-shaming or homophobic comments posted under selfies. On Formspring—the site that allowed people to post anonymous or named comments on your profile—girls would receive rape and death threats.
Back then, there was a fluidity between online and offline bullying. Taunts that started at school would make their way into comments; those leaked nudes would be printed and posted on lockers and line the walls like a walk of fame; bullying that happened in person was filmed on low-res, early-gen phone cameras and shared around. The bullying was more visible, to peers, parents, and teachers, who zoomed in on what they saw—disciplining others if the abuse happened on school property.
Nowadays, according to those I've spoken to for this article, the vast majority of bullying takes place solely online, and is arguably even more insidious and widespread than it's ever been.
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Many women now in their mid 20s have similar memories of being bullied—both online and offline—in the mid 2000s.
Claire, 24, had a Piczo site—a bit like Myspace, but with more tacky graphics and a guest page where anyone could comment, anonymously or not. "I'd get a lot of mean comments about my appearance on there, especially my bigger than average nose," she says. This coexisted alongside the "relentless" bullying she experienced offline. "At school and around town, I'd be hit, spat at, yelled at, and my hair would get pulled. My house was egged a few times, too."
Twenty-three-year-old Brianne* was also physically and verbally abused in person as a teen, and suffered a few bursts of online abuse, too. "I'd suddenly get 20-plus messages telling me to kill myself over Facebook and Formspring," she says. "It's one thing to get your backpack thrown into a lake and another thing to get a constant barrage of faceless people telling you that you're worthless. There's nowhere to put your anger—nowhere to shout back if they're in the cozy safety of their own homes, away from consequence."
"I don't think the standard bullies at my school knew how much damage they could do via the internet at that point."
It's evident that teen girls have always bore the brunt of online bullying. The Cyberbullying Research Center has been collecting large samples of data since 2002. In a study of 2,000 kids aged 11 to 14 in US schools, adolescent girls were significantly more likely to have experienced cyberbullying in their short lifetimes (20.4 percent of girls vs. 14 percent of boys).
My experience of cyberbullying during that period was that it was seeped in blatant misogyny—both from men and internalized misogyny from other teen girls. Young women, along with other minority groups, had firmly embraced social media, seeing it as an opportunity for public-facing self-expression. The openness with which we shared—selfies, uploading whole albums of bikini shots from vacation, blogging diary entries, creating profiles on sites with the sole purpose of allowing people to anonymously criticize us—made us more vulnerable than we could ever be offline, and the prospect was too alluring for people who took a disliking to us.
The saving grace was that it was only 2006 or 2007. Social media was still something you disconnected and connected to; it wasn't there in your pocket at all times. "I only had access to the internet for an hour or so a day, at my parents' discretion," says Claire. "If I'd had an iPhone with limitless data, it would've been much harder to escape." Brianne agrees: "I don't think the standard bullies at my school knew how much damage they could do via the internet at that point. If I was a teenager today, I don't think I'd survive because it'd be constant. Nowadays, your internet presence is part of you, almost, which makes me feel really strange. Then, I could still switch off and delete everything."
A decade on from Sony Ericsson phones, Bebo, and big fringes, the teen cyberbullying gender split is no different. A new study has shown that half of UK girls have been bullied online. It also showed that nearly double the number of girls (23 percent) said that they felt harassed regularly by someone on social media, compared to 13 percent of boys. The stats get worse among minority groups; for instance, in a different large study, 73 percent of teen lesbians reported cyberbullying, in comparison to 51 percent of straight people of both genders.
The nature of the abuse, however, has changed. The teen girls I spoke to for this article all thought offline abuse was less consistent than online, for the obvious reasons of it being easier and less messy. As teen girls are online all the time, this means the abuse is more pervasive.
One 15-year-old, Rhiannon, describes online bullying as a "drip feed" of negative comments and messages, rather than a "repeated huge thing." As everyone is presenting across various platforms—Depop, Twitter, blogs, Instagram, and so on—people who have never met you in real life are more likely than ever to be giving you abuse, anonymously or otherwise. Faceless misogynistic male commenters have become a force of their own.
One 17-year-old girl, Charli*—who has thousands of followers across multiple social media platforms—summarizes why she thinks girls still get more online abuse than boys. "When you are a girl online, you have to be prepared to face scary people, perverted people, rude people, and people who are awkward with girls... It's just kind of how it is and how it always has been unless you keep it a secret that you aren't a boy.
"I think more people need to keep this in mind and have their guards up online because as much as I'm sure everyone wishes it could be, it isn't exactly a 'safe space.'"
Seventeen-year-old Lucia was bullied over Facebook and Twitter when she was 14. Although the source of the issue originated in real life—a girl at her school liked her then-boyfriend—the abuse was carried out online. "They'd never say anything to my face, only when I was in earshot. She got all her friends to continually send me horrible messages from anonymous accounts, telling me to kill myself and hurt myself," she says. "I'd block the accounts, and they'd just start new ones." As she's gotten older, any comment abuse has moved over to Instagram, so she's started a private account and is "very wary" about which accounts she accepts as followers.
"I use Facetune to give myself a smaller nose in lots of photos. I'll always make my friends delete ugly ones because I know I'll obsess over them and create scenarios in my head where people are screenshotting them and sending them around."
A large new study by Ditch the Label of 10,000 young people in the UK between the ages of 12 and 20 found that more (42 percent) had experienced cyberbullying on Instagram than any other platform. Teens like Lucia are combatting that with increased privacy.
Rhiannon, 15, told me that lots of teens—girls, particularly—have "spam accounts": private Instagram accounts that only close friends have access to. "You post a couple of times a day or more about what you're doing, wearing, look like," she says. "Sometimes it's videos, too." Scrolling through some accounts I've been allowed to follow, I can see they're messy and unedited, a space in which to post without fear. They are very—to use the mid-2000s term—random. Rhiannon then has a heavily curated public account, only updated about once a month with what she wants people at school to see.
The separation of content allows an element of control over other people's access to her life. "If people from my school saw my spam, I'd get a lot more shit at school than I do, because it's just stupid things they make fun of me for," she says. "I have a friend who had a spam last year, and people from school found it; they kept saying all this mean stuff about her. She didn't want them to know, but she didn't realize [for a long time] they had found it."
In the same study, nearly 31 percent of the 10,000 British young people surveyed said they have been abusive online toward other users, while only 12 percent admitted to bullying in general. So there's clearly a disconnect in the perception of what constitutes bullying. The study also found that 54 percent of people surveyed have experienced some type of bullying, and that 33 percent of that figure experienced cyberbullying "often" or "constantly." From that, you can only assume that many are experiencing each side of the coin, bullying and being bullied.
Rhiannon admits to playing both roles: "I know I used to indirect people. There was one girl I used to post [to], saying 'get your own life' all the time," she says. "I'm friends with her now, but I was such an asshole at the time. I was very unhappy with myself." Charli agrees: "Not even gonna lie. I'm guilty of this. It's just a lie if people deny it, too."
More surprising is that anonymous commenting sites haven't died out as cyberbullying has become more relentless. Formspring was the most popular in the mid 2000s, but now ASKfm, ThisCrush, Curious Cat, and others have popped up in its place, and many teen girls seem to love them still. Rhiannon has a ThisCrush profile, which invites people who like you to tell you anonymously: "You get horrible comments about your appearance, or I get some about my makeup or my voice, or that I try too hard, or that they don't know why anyone likes me."
But she won't leave the platform—it'd take something "really bad" to convince her to—because of the positive comments. If anonymous faceless accounts are ripping you down across all your other social media accounts, then what's the big deal about adding another account to the mix that also provides you with the occasional bit of positive attention and validation?
"We're continuously negative about things that literally don't matter—it's really exhausting."
Considering we're now a decade on from the mid 2000s, social media networks haven't done much to help change this toxic atmosphere, beyond providing a block function and a service that allows you to report aggressive tweets or comments. The Ditch the Label study showed that 71 percent of young Brits think networks don't do enough to stop cyberbullying.
Why does this matter? Young victims of cyberbullying are twice as likely to attempt suicide and self-harm. Perpetrators of cyberbullying are 20 percent more likely to have suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide, too. We also know that girls are now far more likely to stop taking part in a debate or conversation online, for fear of being criticized. Social media has a huge impact on the way in which girls see themselves—almost half of girls admitted they felt pressure from social media to look or act a certain way. It's a way of grinding down and policing girls, the impact of which we have no idea.
Claire told me that as a result of being bullied on and offline as a teen, she is still wary of what she chooses to put online as a woman. "I won't put up a picture or be tagged in a picture where I look bad. I also use FaceTune to give myself a smaller nose in lots of photos," she says. "I'll always make my friends delete ugly pictures because I know I'll obsess over them and create scenarios in my head where people are screenshotting them and sending them around."
The "drip feed" effect makes cyberbullying harder to police than ever. How do you call out a constant stream of insults, undermining and cruelty any more online than you feasibly could offline? Brianne thinks growing up online explains the way that now-adults use social media.
"There's no empathy on the internet," she says. "It's turned adults into passive aggressive bullies. It gives them access to put people down without justification if necessary. Sometimes I don't even think people notice they're doing it. We're continuously negative about things that literally don't matter—it's really exhausting."
What girls these days face might not be as creative as passive aggressive Myspace essays and entire photoshopped video projects, but the abusive culture built around and reflected on social media is sadly only getting more and more pervasive. Toppling it will take more than a teacher's intervention or a block button could—or will—ever manage.
*Names have been changed as cyberbullying is ongoing, and girls didn't want to provoke further abuse.
Follow Hannah Ewens on Twitter.