Virtual reality: Sex, gender and the bane of cyber bullying

By Linh Do   November 12, 2019 | 11:06 pm PT
Virtual reality: Sex, gender and the bane of cyber bullying
A boy uses tablet at night. Photo by Shutterstock/Jasni.
She was 15 when she decided to end her life. She had been fighting with her 22-year-old boyfriend and trying to break up with him.

But he would not let her go. Instead, he posted a video clip of their having sex on his Facebook account, which went viral, attracting 300,000 views, 18,000 likes, and 4,000 shares.

The insults, ridicule and taunts that followed traumatized her. She killed herself by drinking herbicide, leaving behind a phone message apologizing to her parents and squarely blaming her boyfriend for her death.

This happened in the southern province of Dong Nai in June, 2015.

The same month, two years earlier, a 12th grader also killed herself by drinking herbicide. Some boys in her class had cut and pasted her face on to another woman’s revealing body and posted in Facebook. She threatened to kill herself if the boys did not remove the photograph, which had made her the butt of malicious teasing and jokes, but they refused and she took her own life.

Last year, an 11th-grader from the central province of Nghe An drowned herself in a pond after a clip of her kissing her boyfriend in class went viral. Ironically, it was March 8, the International Women’s Day. She was a well-behaved, academically bright student. She too, apologized to her parents in her suicide note.

The investigation results and follow up action in most these cases are often not been widely publicized for various reasons including the time taken to reach a conclusion, and often sink into a memory hole.

A team of researchers from the University of Education under the Vietnam National University in Hanoi have conducted 10 studies since 2015, surveying 5,000 students, teachers and experts on cyber-bullying.

They have concluded that about 3 of every 10 secondary school students in Vietnam suffer from online bullying. Many have gone into depression and some have committed suicide.

This figure mirrors the global data recently released by UNICEF and the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children.

According to the UNICEF report, 1 in 3 young people in 30 countries, and 21 percent of young people in Vietnam have been a victim of cyber bullying.

The report, which surveyed 170,000 people aged 13-24, showed that cyber bullying among classmates wasn’t a high-income issue. It was also common in poorer regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

All over the world, social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter are the most common platforms for cyber bullying.

In Vietnam, the research team similarly found that cyber bullying most often occurs on Facebook, messaging apps such as Zalo and Viber, and video and photo sharing sites such as YouTube and Instagram.

Inured to violence

Before cyber bullying, face-to-face bullying has been a fact of life for long, maybe as long has human existence itself.

However, the sad fact is that even today, school bullying is pervasive in many countries.

According to Nguyen Thanh Liem, a consultant with the HCMC Institute of Dermatoglyphic Research, higher living standards and pampering parents are giving young people today an easy life, a great deal of free time, and a selfish, erratic temperament. This, coupled with a lot of exposure to violence in the media, including video games, has led to more and more young people engaging in violent behavior, including bullying. They treat school discipline, teachers and peers with contempt.

Other experts have pointed out that bullies are often older kids, who among other things, are "motivated" by jealousy of others’ better academic performance or athletic or other abilities.

Victims are often students who don’t have friends or have few friends, weak health, unusual appearances, or difficult, special backgrounds. But there is evidence that bullying has no age limitations, either.

Tran Tu Quyen, a teacher at the Vang Anh Kindergarten School in HCMC’s District 5, told the media that bullying among her students comes in all shapes and sizes.

Many little ones hit, pinch or bite their friends right before her eyes. Some wait for their teacher to turn away before hitting their friends. Some others pinch their friends stealthily while watching their teacher.

Nothing good comes out of it

According to Che Da Thao, a psychology instructor from the HCMC University of Technology, bullying negatively affects everybody involved: the victims, the bullies, and the witnesses.

Bullied children, already timid, become even more frightened. They are afraid of going to school and taking part in school activities. Their academic performance plummets, they become depressed and in some cases, commit suicide.

As for the bullies, Thao said they can gloat over their victory, develop the habit of using pressure and violence against others, and go on to use drugs and commit more serious violence in adulthood.

Depending on their individual make-up, the witnesses will develop the psychology of the victims or bullies, Thao said.

...and it gets worse

Students play on the street in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Shutterstock/Bui Viet Huy.

Students play on the street in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Shutterstock/Bui Viet Huy.

Though direct bullying is an alarming issue, in recent years, cyber bullying has overtaken direct bullying as a more dominant form of violence against children and young people worldwide.

While face-to-face bullying seems to be on the decline, cyber bullying is increasing, Dr. and Associate Professor Tran Thanh Nam, head of the Department of Education Sciences under the National University Hanoi, told a recent national e-conference on school violence prevention.

Nam said cyber bullying is more terrible than direct bullying because it can happen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and children can be bullied wherever they are.

Other experts have pointed out that the witnesses in cyber bullying can also multiply infinitely, aggravating the psychological harm done to the victims. What is once posted on the Internet can be be endlessly copied and thus, in effect, become indelible.

Bullies in cyberspace can also be more cruel and persistent because they don’t directly see the suffering of their victims and may not feel restrained as a result.

At the same time, victims often don’t know who the bullies are because the latter can easily hide behind anonymous or fake identities.

One alarming result from the UNICEF’s report was that 42 percent of almost 1,600 respondents in Vietnam said that they have heard about private online groups inside their school community where children share information about other children, so that they can bullied.

Touching on a similar issue, Nam said that almost every class in a middle or high school in Vietnam now has a social media page.

Besides sharing useful information, these pages can also easily become a breeding ground for gossip and insults.

Nam said that in the past, students often banded together to boycott somebody, but these days they can call, message, or publicly insult those whom they dislike on social media.

A wide reach

The cyberspace bullying of school children should not come as a big surprise, because of the ease with which it can be done.

Just this October, Korean actress and singer Sulli Choi hanged herself at the age of 25 after suffering from depression for many years.

Among other reasons, negative feedback by "haters" on the Internet was blamed for causing her death. Earlier, Sulli Choi had also said in an interview that as a child star, she used to suffer from bullying at school.

"The online community is killing people, one by one, people whom they don’t know," said 19-year-old Local Brands Vietnam photo model Nguyen Ngoc Bao Han, who has been a victim of rumors and fake news.

"The keyboard is the knife, and words are shot directly at the target, but those who type them mistake themselves for being honest and special," Han told local media.

Gender and beyond

Commenting on the gendered aspects of cyber bullying, Dr. Tran Van Cong with the University of Education said more boys are bullies than girls, and more girls are both bullies and victims.

A notorious case of a female student being both the culprit and victim occurred in 2016. A 13-year-old girl from the central province of Khanh Hoa posted a status on Facebook promising to burn her school if her post had 1,000 likes.

After she received enough likes, her Facebook friends threatened to beat her up if she didn’t make good on her promise. The girl then went to her school to carry out the promised arson, but ended up burning her legs instead.

Vietnamese experts say even though cyber bullying is quite common, parents and schools don’t pay enough attention to the phenomenon. Bullying prevention programs at local schools are very limited, if not totally absent.

Even parents who take suicidal children to psychologists and psychiatrists or more worried about the suicidal aspect rather than the whole process of online ridiculing and bullying that leads to such desperation.

It is also not easy for parents to know what is happening online. Dr. Nguyen Hong Kien, another member of the University of Education’s research team, said that when they use social media, students don’t like adding their parents and teachers as friends, and even often block them.

So parents should have their own special "eyes and ears" for better supervision, Kien said.

According to Najat Maalla Mjid, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children, everybody involved - governments, Internet service providers and young people themselves - should be responsible for ending cyber bullying.

Some tech companies like Instagram have asked users to think twice before posting potentially offensive content, but this is unlikely to have a great impact, experts say.

Nam with the University of Education said that many countries worldwide have had to develop national programs to tackle school bullying.

For instance: South Korea enacted a school violence and bullying prevention law in 2004; the Philippines enacted a similar law in 2016 to deal both with traditional and online bullying.

Vietnam also has a legal framework to deal with school violence, but some lawmakers have pointed out that the laws aren’t being enforced effectively at all. 

Another major cause is commonly believed to be family education. Many experts criticize Vietnamese parents for being too busy, lax and inattentive to their children, or being too strict.

Tran Minh Hai, Director of the Tuong Lai Centre for Health Education and Community Development in HCMC, said schools should have hotlines or some consulting service for all children to turn to and be able to spot early the signs of somebody bullying or being bullied. "Children are still children. Whether they are victims or bullies, they need adults’ sincere sympathy and help."

Most importantly, Hai said, the cure begins at home.

He said parents should show their children love and respect at home every day, so that they will go to school and treat their friends the same way.

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