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Andrea Martin-Swaby | Cyber bullying a growing threat

Published:Saturday | June 25, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Andrea Martin Swaby

Bullying is not a novel term. It has always been classified as antisocial behaviour that has existed for centuries, but this generation is perhaps the first to grapple with a different form of bullying.

One might be able to relate to that big guy or girl who used to try hard to scare us or eat out our snacks as a child. But now, children, and even adults, might be faced with a different challenge - the bully that uses the Internet to communicate the threat or taunt.

Whatever form this behaviour might take on the Web, it is still bullying by any measure. These activities in cyberspace are now termed 'cyber bullying'.

Online bullying is not very distinct from the traditional form of bullying in school. In fact, it is a mutated form. Both include nagging, humiliation, forms of intimidation, aggression, teasing, and overall aggression. What poses a real cause for concern for cyber bullying is that in this set-up, unlike its historical version, the perpetrator can hide in cyberspace under the clout of anonymity.

Time is also not a factor, and the perpetrators can strike an appropriate time of their choosing. To go further, the bullies' reach is almost limitless as the threat or taunt may be posted for all who have access to the Internet to see.

What is cyber bullying? It is the use of electronic communication to bully a person.

Cyber bullying has been classified as a global term that means the harassment of someone by use of electronic media, usually, but not always, social media. This harassment is done through electronic communication systems and, in most instances, via the Internet.

This typically takes the form of sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature. The days of a bully making a threatening statement verbally in the presence of other children, or peers, is a feature of a bygone era.

Most persons would have been familiar with the bully within the confines of a school, but today, the bullies' reach is almost limitless, and with the click of a button, that threat or taunt may be distributed across school populations and even outside of territorial borders. Smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices are connected via the Internet, which affords almost limitless connectivity of electronic devices. Seized of such devices and accessibility to the Internet can be a playground for the bully and a nightmare for the victim.


Everybody affected


It is not specific to any age group, nor is it confined to a particular class of persons. People of all ages are grappling with the challenges posed by social media. The harassment might be heralded via text messaging, emails, Facebook, etc. This form of bullying can be particularly harmful as the content can be spread widely, quickly, and anonymously and can have a devastating impact, including psychological effects on all who are exposed to it.

Cyber bullying can also be direct or indirect. Where the message is sent to the victim only in the form of a text message, or other means of instant messaging such as WhatsApp, Instagram, this can be considered to be a direct transmission of the content. However, in situations where the message is not sent to a person directly but is made accessible by others through its posting to a publicly accessible site or cyberspace, it can be deemed to be indirect in nature.

Cyber bullying has been characterised in several forms. The main forms are harassment and cyber stalking. Harassment involves repeatedly sending offensive messages to a target, whereas cyber stalking involves intense harassment and denigration that includes threats or creates significant fear in the victim. Harassment becomes cyber stalking when a victim fears for his personal safety. Denigration may involve making a derogatory comment about the target.

At present, there is no specific cyber-bullying law in Jamaica, nor is there any legislation that defines this phenomenon. It is not legally defined in the Cyber Crime Act of Jamaica and it is not specifically criminalised. However, the Cyber Crime Act of 2015 has introduced a new offence of malicious communication through the use of a computer, and this offence may address some forms of cyber bullying.

Under the Cyber Crime Act 2015, the offence of malicious communication has been defined as the use of a computer to send to another person any data that is obscene, threatening, or menacing. Where a person does this, and intends to cause annoyance, distress, or anxiety, he or she may be charged for this offence, which extends to obscene data, and is, therefore, apt to deal with images that are obscene in character, including sexual images. Therefore, where a person distributes sexual images with the intention to causing distress, anxiety or annoyance, he or she may be charged under the act.


Using a Computer to Distribute Obscene Images with Intent


One may argue that where the perpetrator distributes the sexual images of a person with intent to cause distress or anxiety, he may also be charged for malicious communication under the Cyber Crime Act.

The important thing to note is that this form of activity can be avoided, where persons are vigilant in ensuring that personal images are managed carefully and are seldom shared. The ease and reach of the click of a button must never be underestimated, and the power and accessibility of the Internet must be respected.

The dissemination of such things may affect the victim psychologically, and physically. It is for these reasons that cyber awareness is critical. In the same way we teach children not to speak to strangers, they must be advised not to tweet and WhatsApp with strangers, and most important not to share personal material whether in the form of images or otherwise with strangers. The importance of this safety mechanism cannot be overstated.

In the interim, parents and guardians and local IT business professionals should devise ways to protect the younger and vulnerable generation and dictate how children should utilise technology. We might need to limit the amount of time children spend online and control what they access and the times that they access online content.

Given the tech nature of this form of bullying, it is distinct from the traditional form in that it leaves 'digital footprints'. As a result, you are in a better position to trace the source of the perpetrator, and it is not so much a 'he said-she said' situation, but there can be actual evidence of the attack.

We need to develop a culture where children are informed about the risks and the appropriate response when faced with certain situations. Also, we need to encourage children to speak up and speak out when certain things occur.

- Andrea Martin-Swaby, assistant director of public prosecutions, Head Cyber Crime and Digital Forensics Unit. Email feedback to