The tension in our circle was palpable as I asked the question, “Why do you think some of you did better than others in this game?” Nervous eyes looked from one teammate to another. The silence was broken by a slightly built boy of about 14: “They bullied me! They ganged up on me!”
The boy did not lose the game, but he was close to the bottom. The girl who did lose said, “I felt that I lost because I ‘attacked’ others more. But I also felt betrayed by my friends.”
It was the end of the first day of a two-and-a-half day Digi-UNICEF CyberSAFE Bootcamp for teens aged 12–16 to learn about cyberbullying, cybergrooming and staying safe online. The camp was part of a series of initiatives by Digi, a Malaysian telecommunications provider, and UNICEF designed to promote digital citizenship and safety, encouraging adolescents to use digital technology to their advantage and for social good.
The majority of adolescents and young people in Malaysia have Internet access. The country has the fourth-highest proportion of ‘digital natives’ (youths aged 15–24 with at least five years of active Internet use) in the world. Despite easy accessibility and familiarity with the internet, 77% of the children surveyed by Digi still believe cyberbullying is not a big deal and not nearly as harmful as bullying in real life. The time was right for more immersive lessons on Internet safety.
An environment ripe for bullying
To show the teens just how easy it was to bully and be bullied, they were asked to play a game against other members of their team. The penalty? The ‘loser’ would be shamed on social media.
The group I facilitated for this activity had spent a full day as teammates playing against other teams. They were now pitted against one another. Despite the lessons on bullying they had learned throughout the day, they inevitably ended up turning on each other. Their responses showed the ill will they felt.
The game showed how bullying in real life and bullying online are not dissimilar. Both feed off the need for social acceptance, peer pressure and sacrificing the ‘weakest link’. A 2015 study conducted by Digi found that there is a strong correlation between peer pressure and cyberbullying.
There is always a choice
Many would ask the question: but what could we have done? If our instinct is to become adversaries, how can we fight it?
Two teams out of the 12 found a way: they had no losers. As a group, they decided that no one would be sacrificed, and worked around the rules to ensure everyone had equal marks at the end.
They proved that there is always a better way – if we care to look for it.
The bully in all of us?
The teens learned that no matter how many times they affirmed that bullying is wrong, the propensity to do it in certain circumstances was so strong and so insidious, it was often undetectable even with education and awareness.
In the end, we all have the potential to be bullies, and to be bullied when we least expect it. A safer Internet is only possible if we remember to treat online actions and reactions the same way we do in real life. The difference lies in making the decision to do unto others what we’d like to have done unto us.
“Young people should be wary of who we are talking to and how we act online, because sometimes people can be mean without knowing it,” shared a 14-year-old girl in a video she made for Digi on cyber safety. “It’s ok to feel confident online, but it’s also important to remember that behind every screen is a person. How you would feel if someone said something rude to you behind the screen?”
Diana Chai is a Digital Communications Officer at the UNICEF Malaysia Country Office.