Cyberbullying: The Anonymous Killer

More than 20 per cent of cyber bullying victims have considered suicide. By Stephanie Toms.

On January 4th, David Molak, a 16-year-old boy from Texas, was found hanged in his back yard following months of abuse and torment over the social media app Instagram. The brother of the deceased, Cliff Molak, has since gone public to help raise awareness about cyber bullying and the impact it can have on today’s society. 

“In today’s age, bullies don’t push you into lockers, they don’t tell their victims to meet them behind the school’s dumpster after class, they cower behind user names and fake profiles from miles away constantly berating and abusing good, innocent people.” wrote Molak, in his latest viral Facebook post. “The recent advances in social media have given our generation a freedom of which has never been seen before. Freedom is a beautiful thing, however as freedom and personal liberties expand (and they rapidly are), there needs to be an equal expansion of personal accountability. Right now there is no expansion of personal accountability.”

In a recent poll by the Anti Bullying Alliance, studies showed that over 55 per cent of children across the globe had come to terms with cyber bullying being a part of every day life online. Similarly, The British Psychological Society revealed that approximately 90 per cent of the younger generation are signed up to some form of social media account, with 92 per cent of teens reportedly logging in each and every day.

With the allure of the internet celebrity on the rise, viewers and followers are beginning to start their own blogs and websites in a bid to both connect with, as well as reach a similar level of success as their idols, such as Zoe Sugg of Zoella and Alfie Deyes of Pointless blogs. In turn, these individuals are exposing themselves to potential online abuse and anonymous messages from others, without their parent’s or guardian’s knowledge.

More young people are creating social accounts to connect with their favourite internet stars [Source: Stephanie Toms]

More young people are creating social accounts to connect with their favourite internet stars [Source: Stephanie Toms]

"Social media wasn't as big as it is now when I was in school. The main sites where Bebo or Formspring [an anonymous question and answer based website] - and even then as a child I'd be subjected to anonymous messages in the form of cyber bullying,” says Lucinda Burgress-Farwell, a social media assistant. “Even in my twenties, people I had been to school with would leave nasty comments on my blog. With social media as prevalent as it is today and children using it from as young as 9 or 10 years old, it's scary to think of what they may see or be put through with societies constant need for narcissistic vanity.  At least now cyber bullying is an acknowledged crime, but that still requires young people to speak up if it happens to them, and often they may be threatened not to.”

In 2015 it was estimated that there were over 25 thousand child counselling sessions held, with over 7 thousand of these cases relating to online bullying and internet safety. In addition to this, the NSPCC reported that there has also been a change in the way that children contact the ChildLine, with more than 70 per cent of counselling sessions taking place via online chat or email communication. Prior to the growth of the internet, the majority of contact was made through the use of telephone calls and/or written communication.

In a recent study by the anti-bullying group Ditch The Label, it was reported that 20 per cent of young victims of cyber bullying have thought about suicide. 1 in 10 victims are reported to attempt it. Suicide is currently the third leading cause of death in 15 to 24-year-olds, with over 4,500 youths falling victim to this tragedy each year.

However, it’s not just the younger generation struggling with the emotional impact of social media.

“I received death threats to my children”, says Emma White, a full-time ‘mummy blogger’ at the Jigsaw Parenting Blog. “Because of my open honesty about being a bipolar mum I was left vile comments about my parenting skills - did my children eat from dog bowls, should people phone social services, my children would have been better off being aborted than have a crazy mother like me. They somehow got my phone number and address - I am guessing from my domain name search as it was public - and left vile messages on my answer phone. They made up a Facebook hate page and - after posting my address online, receiving threats to attack my home and eventually setting it on fire - I involved the police. It thankfully stopped in time after they received no retaliation from myself. But it left many emotional scars.”

But for many, the luxury of involving the law isn’t always an option. Due to the majority of (often anonymous) online abusers hiding behind an internet screen, the evidence of online bullying can be hard to categorise as ‘abuse’, since it can be difficult to accurately pin-point the intent and tone behind the written word.

As it currently stands in the UK, there is no official law for the act of cyber bullying, making it almost impossible for victims to file a successful case against the abuser. There are however a number of existing laws applicable to online harassment, including the Communications Act 2003 and the Defamation Act 2013.

“Ask FM/Formspring are horrible websites,” says Stephanie Tweedie - a former by joining them all you're doing is opening yourself up to the bullies that are too afraid to say things to your face so have to hide behind a computer screen instead. I wasn't on it for long before I closed my account because I found it was shattering my confidence and I would come away feeling so miserable after checking it.  At the time I was in a relationship and I was facing problems and trust issues after going on there to see my inbox filled with rumours about my boyfriend cheating on me. Those websites cause more problems than they're worth, in some cases it's gone as far as people taking their own lives because they haven't been able to handle the sheer amount of nasty messages. I'd advise anyone to stay well away from them, in the hope they'll just eventually close them all down!”

Despite anonymity in the online community, there are many ways for internet service providers and the police to track abusive emails and messages. For the majority of ISP (Internet Service Providers) there is a contact email address included in the ‘Terms of Service’ specifically reserved for concerns regarding cyber bullying.

Further help and advice on cyber bullying and internet abuse can be obtained by contacting your local harassment helplines.

Word count: 1,103

Conclusion

In conclusion, I am overall very happy with the quality of work that I have produced for this module, as I believe that both features fit well with my target publication, their writing style and their target audience.I also feel that I created a realistic online brand for both of my articles - having had many positive responses from my own blog readers as well as my social media followers.

If I were to do this module again I would perhaps change my crime feature for a different specialist subject, as I felt it quite difficult to write a feature without making it appear as too much of a profile piece or news story. Nevertheless, I do think it was beneficial for me to step outside of my comfort zone and write about a topic that I'm not overly familiar with, such as crime and law, as it has given me more confidence to broaden my journalistic horizons in the future.

Ethics and legalities

Since the story regarding David Molak was vital for my feature, it was inevitable that I should include a variety of quotes regarding the topic. Due to the sensitivity of the subject I chose to gather the majority of my quotes from the Molak family through information already in the public domain. For ethical reasons, I also made sure to source these quotes whenever relevant.

Another issue that I faced when creating my articles was sourcing originally imagery, as both stories required photos of something that had already happened (ie. in the Essena O'Neill case regarding her Instagram posts). Again, as these images were already in the public domain, I decided to use them in my own pieces to further illustrate my writing. Again, I made sure to correctly source every picture.

Whilst I did create a few of my own photos for the features, I would have liked to have included more original visuals to add credibility to my work. However, for the news element of these stories I was unable to do so.

Online branding examples

IS INSTAGRAM MAKING US INSECURE?

by Stephanie Toms

Publication: Elle UK
Section: The Column / #GIRLINTERRUPTER


FACEBOOK

TWITTER

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 02.35.18.png

CYBER BULLYING: THE ANONYMOUS KILLER

by Stephanie Toms

Publication: The Independent
Section: News | Crime

FACEBOOK

TWITTER

Is Instagram Making Us Insecure?

The world of instagram is addictive, inspiring and completely unrealistic, says Stephanie Toms. 

When Essena O’Neill - a 19-year-old Australian girl with over half a million followers on Instagram - decided to leave the app because it depicted ‘contrived perfection made to get attention’, the online community divided into two camps: one supporting her choices, the other claiming it was all just a mere marketing ploy. 

In today's society, the number of followers on a person's profile is more than just a status symbol - it's almost a form of currency. The 'influencers' (as they're so commonly known) rack up their numbers with perfectly curated images and softly lit selfies and quite literally create their ideal world for all to see on the world wide web.

The higher the number of followers, the more influence these creators have. The more influence they have on others, the more appealing they become for potential advertisers. And the more appeal they have, the higher they can charge for sponsored posts. For many ‘professional ‘grammers’ it’s no longer about sharing a candid holiday snap for friends to see, it’s about advertising. It’s about business.

These days, a new breed of photo editing apps have gained traction in the online world, with hundreds if not thousands of apps on the market allowing users to alter just about everything about themselves: eye colour, hair colour, skin smoothness and even the shape of their bodies altogether. You name it, there’s probably an app for it. 

Of course, photo retouching is nothing new for the most of us, having grown up alongside edited ads and idolising photoshopped fashion models on the covers of our favourite magazines, but now it appears as though countless young girls and boys are looking at these doctored snaps completely unaware of the work that goes into making them so-called ‘Instagram-worthy’. Some are even going as far as calling this editing tactic a form of selfie-surgery. No where near as pricey as the real thing (with paid apps starting from just 49 pence a download), but far more detrimental for today’s youth.

“I’m forever checking Instagram,” says Every time I log on I see so many beautiful girls and guys looking back at me from my iPhone. I know in the back of my mind that a lot of the pictures are edited to some degree but it doesn’t mean I don’t get jealous when I’m inundated with pictures of perfect lives and even more perfect faces. I see them living a life that I could only dream of, so without even thinking about it I start to partake in something I call like-lusting myself. The better the pictures, the more likes I get. It’s addictive.”

But it’s not just young adults struggling to say no to the social site. Girls as young as ten years old can be found posting images of themselves using the hash tags #beautypaegent and #hotornot, in hopes of obtaining their own ’Instagram fame’. Their judge? The same as the rest of the world: Instagram’s 100 million users - and they’re not always the most welcoming of critics. 

“I think social media is an incredible tool, and if used well can boost someones career immensely. I mean, you can't easily run a business these days without using it.”, says Olivia Bossert, an aspiring blogger and founder of Atlas Magazine. “On a personal level, it can be hard to know where to draw the line. How much should we share? What are other people sharing? It can make people's lives seem incredible, wonderful, perfect, because that's what they're showing us. I know for a fact that when I look through someone I admire's Instagram feed, I'm seeing the best part of their day. I constantly have to remind myself that they have crappy days too, that not everyone is perfect. I do get insecure looking through social media, very regularly, but I also find motivation. I look at people's work, what they've been up to, how they did their hair, and it motivates me to try harder, test out something new, or put myself out there. As long as you can keep a balanced approach to it, and know that what you're seeing is only a small percentage of that person's life, then it's great.”

The average user spends over 250 minutes each month on the app, checking up on their favourite accounts and hash tagging their way in an attempt to make it onto the popular page. If a picture doesn’t meet the creator’s expectations (ie. if it doesn’t get enough likes or, worse, if the influencer actually loses followers) it’s not uncommon for bloggers and instagram celebrities to delete certain uploads to save face, as well as their own ego.

In fact, research from the University of Buffalo in New York has shown that those who base their self-worth on the way they look are more likely to share photos of themselves on the internet in an attempt to seek validation from their audience. They’re also said to often have more followers than the average because of this.

So when Essena O’Neill decided to delete the majority of her Instagram snaps last year in an attempt to prove to the world that ‘social media is not real life’ it left a sour taste in the mouths of some - specifically, Nina and Randa Nelson - fellow Youtubers and former friends of the estranged internet star.

'She has more Instagram followers than ever because of this publicity stunt,' they said. “Just because one person has had a bad experience with [social media] doesn't mean everyone should jump on the band wagon.”

The girls then went on to explain their thoughts on Youtube where they described O’Neill as ‘fake’ and ‘delusional’ - citing that she only decided to quit social media following a recent split from her boyfriend.

The nineteen year old Australian, who now is now the face behind the website ‘Let’s Be Game Changers’ previously admitted to creating ‘thinspiration’ mood boards on her wall as a youngster, skipping meals and eating as little as possible in a bid to obtain the look she was so well known for on Instagram.

Youtubers Nina & Randa spent the summer with Essena in their hometown of LA. They say her decision to quit social media is nothing but a 'hoax' and that their friendship was far from 'fake'.  [Source: Nina & Randa Youtube]

Youtubers Nina & Randa spent the summer with Essena in their hometown of LA. They say her decision to quit social media is nothing but a 'hoax' and that their friendship was far from 'fake'.
 [Source: Nina & Randa Youtube]

“I had this idea that to love myself, I had to look like these [model] girls.” she said on one of her Youtube videos entitled ‘You’re My Inspiration’. “Everyone told me how much of an inspiration I was. It’s very heartbreaking to think that young girls would have done the same thing. Maybe screen-shotting my images or punishing themselves for not looking like me.””

“If you are predisposed to anxiety it seems that the pressures from technology act as a tipping point,” says Nicky Lidbetter - chief executive of the national charity Anxiety UK “making people feel more insecure and more overwhelmed.”

O'Neill changed the captions of her most popular Instagram photos to share the truth about what goes into an image. [Source: Essena O'Neill Instagram]

O'Neill changed the captions of her most popular Instagram photos to share the truth about what goes into an image. [Source: Essena O'Neill Instagram]

But for others, social media has been a platform that promotes confidence, rather than condemns it. Having struggled with anorexia for years, blogger and Instagrammer Megan Jayne Crabbe decided to share her journey of recovery on the app in a bid to inspire others and help them learn to love their bodies, no matter the size.

"Turn off the channels that only glorify one body type and close the pages that sell you whitewashed one dimensional ideals," writes Megan in one of her recent blog posts “Fill your social media up with a plethora of perfection. Find the plus size models and the body positive activists. Find all the wonderful bodies being embraced that our media doesn't show us. Every size, every skin colour, every age, every ability, every gender - there are all kinds of bodies out there that belong to people who are completely happy in them, exactly as they are.”

And with over 100 million different bodies on the app, it’s safe to say that there’s no shortage in diversity on the internet. Sponsored or not sponsored, candid or curated, the direction of a creators account still remains very much that - in the hands of the creator. Whether they choose to promote detox teas to pay the rent or simply share a selfie when they’re feeling fresh. For once, it’s not the media controlling what we see. It’s us.

Word count: 1,352

Curating an online brand

When devising my online brand it was important for me to create shareable imagery and content to ensure that my 'print' articles translated well onto blogs and social media. When promoting my work on social media I chose to write in a tone that fit with the publications target audience - for example, when promoting the article for ELLE Magazine I decided to talk to the audience in a more personal, casual manner by asking them questions and addressing them in the second person. For the crime feature however, I chose to share the article in a more conservative manner, mostly because the piece included information about loss of life, law and mental health.

Since I included both of my pieces of work on my own personal blog, the general style and layout of the website is not something that I feel fits well with the stories I have written. If I were to create my own news site I would have opted for a less 'young' colour scheme and I would have instead chosen a more conventional 'magazine-style' layout. However, since I already have a following on my own blog I decided to promote my work there, so that it could be shown to a real audience.

 

Word count: 207

Gaining quotes and information

By far my biggest struggle when writing my features was finding quality quotes from relevant source. This was mostly due to the fact that most of my contacts were out of the office over the Christmas period, or simply too busy to respond. To make sure I ha quotes to incorporate into my story, I decided to contact personal friends for their thoughts and opinions on relatable topics such as internet safety and their thoughts on social media.

Thankfully, once the holiday season was over I received more than enough quotes from the people I had originally contacted late December. Understandably, however, I was unable to get any comment from the likes of Essena O'Neill, Molak's family or any form of law enforcement, despite my attempts.

Nevertheless, I do believe that both of my articles contained a sufficient amount of primary research and quotes to help illustrate the topics at hand. I also endeavoured to make the majority of images included in my features my own, however this again proved difficult for the David Molak case due to ethical and legal constraints.

Word count: 182

Devising story ideas

For my portfolio I have decided to create two different features - one focussing on the specialism of fashion, the other on crime and criminal activity. When choosing my specialisms I chose to curate my articles for ELLE Magazine and the Independent newspaper, as they're both two very popular publications within their niche, but also very different in terms of content and writing style.

When devising ideas for my portfolio one trending story that stuck out to me was the Essena O'Neill controversy in which the famous Instagram-er quit the app as she felt it was giving her (500 million) followers a false idea of perfection. Since this was such a popular story at the time, I decided to build on it and turn what could be a short news story into a lengthy feature about the impact Instagram has on today's youth. 

Similarly, when devising my story for the crime specialism I decided to focus on the story regarding David Molak - a sixteen year old boy who took his own life because he was being bullied online. 

Since both of my stories were based around trending topics at the time of being written, I feel as though they would work well for my online brand as they are easily shareable and - potentially - very image heavy, which translates well on the internet.

Word count: 225