In School, In Class: Sub-tweeting Abuse

The writer is a high-school student & has requested anonymity 

There’s a plethora of social networking sites, many of which are actively used by the teenagers that make up my high school’s student body. However, with the dominant social networking superpower Facebook blocked at school, students actively turned towards Twitter during or in between classes, expressing whatever they desire in 140 characters or less. Or at least that was the case until Twitter was blocked due to an incident dubbed as “indirect cyber bullying.”

Initially, there was an uproar and various insults were hurled towards the administration as students failed to understand the reasons for the blockade. As the days passed, students  began to question what qualified as “indirect cyber bullying.” Slowly, but surely, details of the harassment were released.

It turned out that a group of four boys, in my very own grade,  had allegedly posted  spiteful comments about one of the boy’s ex-girlfriends on Twitter. The tweets never directly  revealed the victim’s name, but they weren’t  so subtle either.  Some of them mentioned several physical characteristics that were unique to the girl while other tweets included attacks against the girl’s mother, encompassing a painful variety of racial slurs and foul language degrading both women.

It was ironic that I had scrolled past these very same tweets about a week ago, dismissing them almost instantly because the tweets were sent from  anonymous accounts. In a matter of minutes, the insults encapsulated within the 140-character limit were lost amidst the sea of infamous hashtags and tweets about what people were eating for dinner. Almost as if this was everyday conversation lost in all the chatter.

I was not alone.  After discussing the incident with other students, it turned out that many others had scrolled past these attacks and had directly filed the tweets under the usual petty drama that occurs on the Internet. What we all failed to see was the severity of the abuse; all of the tweets included sexist and racist remarks that would not have been tolerated had they been said out loud at school.

Luckily, not everyone blatantly scrolled past the tweets. The girl’s friend had picked up on the small clues and immediately approached her. The hints were obvious enough to serve as a substantial reason for suspending all four boys.

Multiple fingers were pointed at our grade shortly after word got around about the cyber bullying incident. Not because of the cruelty of the act, but rather because students were frustrated that they would no longer be to occupy themselves with Twitter during class. There was more concern about whether  it was fair to suspend the boys since the malicious tweets never specifically said who they were attacking, rather than empathy for the girl against whom the attacks were made.  Many students firmly believed that it wasn’t necessarily harassment if we technically didn’t know for sure who the subject of the tweets was. Other students believed that if the boys had mentioned the girl’s name, it would be unacceptable and therefore their punishment was deserved. The concern over the boys’ suspension was raised primarily by  students who were looking for an excuse to get Twitter unblocked, while other students genuinely implored the validity behind “indirect cyber bullying”

Soon, all the rage turned into sympathy for the suspended boys  as opposed to the girl, and the sexist slurs that had been so shocking initially just became insignificant. “It wasn’t that big of a deal” became the standard response. More questions were raised about whether ‘indirect bullying’ was grounds enough for a reaction – for many this didn’t seem serious enough to block access to Twitter.  It’s sad how quickly the incident became about the Twitter blockade rather than a broader discussion on verbal abuse.

While the incident at my school involved bullies who were not bothered about being subtle, what we fail to realize is that cyber bullying can be direct even when it’s indirect. How many times have I scrolled past passive aggressive statuses, tweets, and blog posts that do not necessarily include any names and thought nothing of them. The idea of being attacked and not even knowing it was only brought to light by this situation.

The incident forced me to momentarily put aside any emotional reaction I had towards the situation and instead question the idea of indirect cyber bullying. When is a tweet or a Facebook status for that matter, considered offensive, even when it hasn’t directly mentioned an individual? Keeping that in mind, who are we to decide when a status or tweet is too “obvious” or offensive?

With the open-ended nature of cyber bullying, this particular incident at my school led us, collectively as students, to address some grey areas: what constitutes abuse and when and how do we play our role in abetting or restricting it? It also led us to evaluate our responses and others’ reactions, and what was right or wrong with them.

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