Bullying: A virtual menace

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Lack of friendly cyber spaces causes poor health for the cyber bullied

Vijayalakshmi* set a resolution last night to reduce her screen time and instead focus on her own well-being from today. Attempting to do justice to her morning routine, she woke up and went ahead to make her morning coffee. As she proceeded to heat the water, she started to receive various calls from her friends. “Hello, what’s wrong?,” said Vijayalakshmi. The only response she received was “Check your instagram profile”. 

She opened the application and to her dismay encountered inappropriate spam messages from an unknown account. Vijayalakshmi is 24 years old, an ex-radio jockey. 

This was an outcome of taking a firm stand against an animal abuse post published by a friend. She received a couple of texts and calls from her friend trying to emotionally manipulate her stand. “It started when she began to explain her stance, and within no time my parents’ social media feeds were  spammed with abuses, negative comments and absurd cryptic threats from 20 random fake accounts,” said Vijayalakshmi.

Due to the pandemic, the number of crimes that have happened on cyber spaces have increased and a lot of them are under investigation, said Srinivas T, Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Bengaluru. They range from fake profiles used online to matrimony as well as OTP and job frauds. Awareness is one main issue which stops people from reporting such activity. There is a lack of circulation of cyber crime guidelines in the country. 

Cyberbullying has increased in India according to a National Crime Records Bureau report. 44,735 cases were registered in 2019, whereas in 2020 50,035 cases were reported.

“It’s been a year for this incident but thinking about it now, I realise that I hate that phase,” said Vijayalakshmi. She further added that more than any stranger, cyberbullying has now transformed into a personal vendetta especially from the people one knows and interacts with.

Cyber bullying leaves victims helpless. Since it can occur in the form of text messages, videos or photos, phone calls, it does not give the victim an opportunity to escape stated Shruti Desai, Trauma Psychologist. She also explained how cyberbullying affects one’s mental health. “Any kind of bullying is always a trauma especially on personality and self image of the person.” Even after the bullying stops, the victim will definitely find themselves in difficult places from time to time, she further added. 

“It took a heavy toll on me mentally as this was the first time I was exposed to such an attack. More importantly, as it was from a friend, it took a lot of time for me to even create new content, post on social media or express my opinions,” Vijayalakshmi said.

UNICEF has laid down a list of questions along with answers collaborated by experts to help identify what is cyber bullying and if you are experiencing it. They have also laid an emphasis on the curbs for cyber bullying as it leaves digital footprints compared to physical bullying which cannot really be traced back. 

The self image and confidence of the person goes down because of cyber bullying, added Shruti. “They might also take drastic steps to deal with it such as avoiding social presence completely or building an alternate self image. They also might reduce the usage of digital devices or isolate themselves frequently,” she said.

Sashi*, a victim of cyber bullying blocked a friend who was approaching her for sexual favours. The gesture made her extremely uncomfortable

She further added that rehabilitation and psychological help are extremely important for the victims. Seeking help might reduce their chances of getting depressed. It will also avoid their chances to deal with the trauma through alcohol or drug addiction. 

The digital law and its regulations

One way to deal with the bullies is to charge them with the crime, post investigation and inquiry. However, one huge roadblock is fetching the IP address of the suspect. Victims usually get confused with the IP address of their network provider and the one that the suspect holds. It is difficult to track it down and sometimes takes weeks. Once we get a match, the suspect is put behind bars and strict action is taken against them based on the severity of the case, Srinivas added.

He also added that Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are a headache. It takes us weeks to track them down or it is impossible to do so in days even with the latest software.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau report 2020, a total of 1,02,743 cases are pending for investigation. Karnataka contributes to 29 percent of this case load. The state has the highest number of cyber crime cases reported, 30,149.

“High usage of social media and the need for a strong legislation gives rise to cyber bullying cases,” said Meenu Padha, Women and Child Rights activist, Internal Complaints Committee. The Information Technology Act and the Indian Penal Code need to be implemented in a stronger and efficient manner, she stated.

Triggering incidents such as this pushed Maya* to de-activate her instagram handle

Sitha*, another victim of cyber bullying said that it was very difficult to figure out how to file a complaint. “A fake account with my name and pictures was created on Instagram. I was devastated but could only report it through a portal which was introduced by the cyber crime department. My friends told me about it.” People are not really aware of cyber laws in India and how to go about it, she further added.

Sitha was able to file her FIR here and the complaint was forwarded to the nearest police station and they took over the case. The National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal was launched by the Ministry of Home Affairs. It also consists of information of the inspector incharge in a state’s cyber cell.

Awareness around cyber laws and related Indian Penal Code (IPC) acts are very important. The government should take special initiatives to ensure citizen safety on cyber spaces stated Meenu. She additionally emphasized on how the law is not standardized across various cities and how it affects the victims. “Big cities like Bengaluru have a cyber cell in every district whereas a place like Jammu and Kashmir only has two cyber cells whereas the area consists of 18 districts in total, for someone to file an FIR they have to travel to either of these places and do so,” she added. 

Anagha Kulkarni, a lawyer emphasized on quick and effective resolutions, punishments and rehabilitation. Cyber bullying is an evil that has greatly affected most people. It should be brought to a stop to prevent any undesirable acts like suicides, social withdrawal, etc. The stressful conditions that occur due to ineffective or late resolution led to the victims suicide or withdrawing themselves from their peers and the society.

Sahana* moved on with her life, but could never get over the fact that this was a close friend.

Sahasra, a human rights activist said that the government is solely responsible to spread awareness around the law. They should conduct seminars and workshops to spread more information around these laws. When people aren’t aware of what the way forward is, how is it possible to ensure safety, she questioned. 

However, the cyber crime laws for men are different. Section 506 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) comes into effect, i.e, imprisonment for criminal intimidation. 

Men, LGBTQIA+ and children

“I always loved to eat. No matter how much I ate, I never put on weight. However, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism four years ago,” said Rohan Rao.* I was very active on Instagram and loved to post pictures there. I was being body shamed for my weight gain. They used to say that a cow looked better than me. My comments section was filled with such comments. I uninstalled the application as I was unable to deal with it.

When I spoke to my father about it, he shunned me and asked me to work on it rather than supporting me. I was devastated. But my mother was there. She helped me get out of it but the trauma keeps coming back, he added.

“Akash* could never get himself to report the incident. He distanced himself at the beginning and none of us understood what happened. He later suicided,” said Ashish G, Akash’s brother

A research on Cyberbullying and cyber victimization. Does gender matter? states that the significant difference in the perception of cyber bullying between both the genders stems out of the idea of traditional bullying, where women dealt with it in silence whereas men focused on revenge and altercations.

Nithin Kumar*, another victim of cyber bullying shared his experience. “My account is open to public. One day I received a message from a follower saying that they have photos of my girlfriend and want me to pay then Rs. 10,000 to not publish them anywhere.”

I ended up paying the money. I was very scared to report this to the police as they might have questioned me. Moreover, that account was nowhere to be found after a day of me paying them, he further added.

The stalking law in India states that women who are being stalked by men can proceed with filing a case which will be considered under Section 354D of IPC. “The law is an example of a lack of gender neutrality with respect to criminal laws in India,” said Aniket Voruganti, a law student.

Men were always deemed to be strong. Men also go through a lot with regards to crime. The lack of gender neutral laws is the main reason for it. POCSO is a gender neutral act, irrespective of the gender of the child. “Society is definitely harsh with men, but we are progressing towards gender neutrality with respect to laws,” said Parth Agarwal, a sociologist.

Aniket, a law student speaks about the lack of gender neutral laws in India

Amala*, a trans woman said, “They used to comment ‘MAN’ all across my posts and say ruthless things like my family is cursed to have raised a child like me.”

She stated that she had less to no cyber bullying experience prior to coming out as a trans woman. “My instagram account was always public. The hate comments started a few months after I came out and mostly targeted my transness,” she added. 

“It gives me a lot less stress,” said Amala about how having support from her family helps her get through such experiences. “I have strong familial support and a good peer group who usually respond to these faceless trolls. But it does hurt me. I got triggered only when a junior- somebody I live with in close proximity harassed me online,” she added. 

Amala also emphasised on police support for the community. “Since I come from a family of influential people, I have good lawyers and my father is a sub inspector. If I had gone through with a case I would expect the law to be on my side. But a lot of queer people in this country cannot say so.”

Rishi*, a suicide survivor was pushed to take drastic steps multiple times in his life.

“After the game Blue Whale took over the internet, I was very sceptical to let my 5 year old Arth* even watch YouTube videos,” said Bina*, mother. Even though we have set a parental control, I would sit with him all the time.

However, one day he came to me spoke to me about talking to a clown. When I questioned him about where did he speak with him, he said on Youtube. I was terrified. Bindu said, “They had asked him to stop doing homework or his family would be harmed. I am glad that he told me about it.”

“Negative childhood experiences can inflict lifelong trauma in a child. They also have a strong effect on them,” said Shruti. 

Nayantara Nair, a child psychologist talks about how cyber bullying affects children, how can it induce trauma in them and the role of psychological interventions.

Data from the National Crime Records Bureau indicates that in 2021, 1102 cases of cyber crimes were reported against children in India.

Decoding the bullies

“A nord VPN is what we rely on,” said a bully. The usage of VPNs and Nord VPNs help us escape from the police. They make it difficult for them to track our IP address. We always rely on family and friends of our victim for their personal information.

Sometimes there is also an exchange of pictures and videos of the victim with them. Even on social networking sites, we begin with hacking one account and circulate a link. Everyone who taps the link, becomes a part of the group. The groups are changed within days to make sure our IP addresses are never the same, he added.

“It is fun,” he said. We are either paid to do this or we receive sexually pleasing content for ourselves.

A research on Cyberbullying in High Schools states that 45 percent of the students felt that cyber bullies either felt insecure, angry or jealous. Nearly 30 percent felt that they used it as a defense mechanism and another 45 percent thought that cyber bullies were mean, bored or were having family problems. 

Trauma is not the only reason which drives bullies to harm another person. Attackers can have aggressive personalities, sadistic behaviour and even antisocial traits. However, it cannot be eliminated that they have inherited such behaviour through personal experiences. Some of these are also extreme coping mechanisms where it is believed that an efficient way to endure pain is to inflict pain on others, stated Shruti.

Behavioural analysis and psychological interventions are the only way forwards for bullies. An effort should be made to treat the bully and the victim. To avoid psychological disorders, it is better to begin with therapy at the beginning rather than delaying, she further added.

Srinivas additionally stated that the punishment for such crimes is three years imprisonment along with a penalty fine. He further said that, sending offensive messages through communication devices anything that has an electronic record qualify as cyber bullying.

“Rehabilitation is not really an option unless they are mentally or physically sick,” he added.

Positive cyberspaces

Meenu also said that today, many NGOs have come forward based on this initiative. They ensure that people are aware of cyber laws and various other laws. These organisations can be the bridge between the government and people in spreading awareness. Adding on to this, individuals also take initiatives by speaking on public forums. If you are aware of the law, it is your duty to spread knowledge.

A study on Social Interactions and Automated Detection Tools in Cyber bullying states that there are three main ways to combat cyber bullying– Education, Cyber laws and Counselling victims.

It further adds on to how education can be one such technique which can minimise harm. Spreading awareness about positive cyber spaces and how to maintain them are very vital. Secondly, counselling as an automated tool would help identify the risk of trauma and connect the victim to authorities. Additionally, cyber laws would overlook the enforcement of positive and safe spaces. 

Anagha added that all social media sites including blogs should have a block feature. The victim’s request to block such writings should be obeyed by the respective administrative staff or social media sites. Otherwise, irrespective of the number of laws, bullies will definitely find their way.

Mountan Sarkar, a cyber security expert interviewed on how can cyber space positivity be achieved? What can the precautionary measures look like for everyone.

Reporter’s Dairy

An observation

An experience

As my phone notifications chimed, I was devastated. It was two emails that I received on a story that I published here at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media. As I peeked through the notification centre of my phone, the words left scars. 

They were my best friends and yet did what many face with strangers. “I knew you better baby,” the message said along with a video to a porn site. As I gathered the strength to report the incident, repeating the details traumatized me. 

For me, the IP address configuration was an issue and the case closed after a few months. We couldn’t even file a First Incident Report (FIR). It was difficult to accept that the only way forward is to accept and let it go. But I wanted strict action against them. 

The lack of cognizance and awareness around the issue drove me to speak to more individuals going through a similar situation.


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