The Dark Side of YouTube: Cyberbullying 101

Written by: Elena Falsini

Lights, camera, action… And a Google account. You could be anyone; someone, no one, but it’s the same for everyone: these are all things you need to be part of the most popular video-sharing platform in the world, YouTube.

YouTube. What springs to mind? Beauty gurus, ardent online gamers, official music videos, unofficial music videos, parodies, and so much more. It’s an intense world, but its popularity doesn’t seem to stop. The promise of YouTube is: come up with a clever idea for a video or even a series, and the rewards will be immense. The appeal is in the fact that the concept is so easy, but even the process, because basically, anyone with a smartphone can do it.

So what are you waiting for? Popularity is right behind the door; or in this case, behind a screen. The classical rags to riches story embodied in ultra-technological modernity. But like everything that is so shiny and beautiful, you’ll find that if you look closely, in the corner, it’s actually rusted. What are the risks, you may wonder? Everything. Even your very own life.

There’s somewhat of a popular belief that millennials are spoiled, ungrateful, selfish, pretentious, lethargic brats who want everything, and they want it now. Whether it’s the latest iPhone or the latest pair of Jordans. Perhaps the issue is a bit more complicated. With the introduction of the internet and the creation of social media platforms in the past few decades, there are simply more stages on which to showcase our successes, because, honestly why would anyone bother posting anything bad about themselves? Humans have forever been obsessed with creating a certain image of themselves to be viewed by others, a uniquely human characteristic among all other animals. After all, we are the only animals that adorn ourselves with clothes and jewelry, and often, we do this for someone else. With the rise of capitalism and consumerism it’s easy to get lost in the latest trends. This is where social media has stepped in; the information is at our fingertips, literally, and today, more than ever, our online selves have become a full-fledged marketing tool for businesses.

The most fascinating aspect of the internet and social media is that it allows ‘ordinary’ people to come face-to-face with corporations. The internet doesn’t discriminate, it gives a chance to everyone: everybody is equal in the World Wide Web. But the true magnetism of social media sites, especially for young people, is their ability to spawn numerous online celebrities. The internet has generated and facilitated young entrepreneurs, and they make it look so easy. Now, most millennials share their lives online, because it only takes one video or photo to go “viral” and become the next Justin Bieber or Kylie Jenner. So can you blame us entitled, lazy narcissists for trying?

However, people always seem to forget that behind fame and glamour, even internet fame and glamour, harbours a certain type of darkness, and it has a name: cyberbullying.

Anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label surveyed more than 10.000 youths in its annual cyberbullying report. It uncovered that in 2014, 7 out of 10 young people were victims of cyberbullying, 37% of them were experiencing cyberbullying on a highly frequent basis, and 20% of young people were experiencing extreme cyberbullying on a daily basis. Of all youths polled, 66% use YouTube and of that number, 21% of that percentage experienced cyberbullying. In a survey conducted by Cox on internet safety in 2014, it was reported that 54% of teens surveyed witnessed online bullying, of which 29% occurred on YouTube.

Even famous YouTubers receive negative comments publicly and privately on a daily basis. Some of these are extremely vicious to the point where they could be considered death threats. Singer Rebecca Black, who got her fame through her “Friday” music video on YouTube, was forced to quit middle school after being severely ridiculed for it. Other dangers that YouTubers may face vary from hacked accounts and stolen personal information, to face-to-face altercations simply because of the YouTube persona they have created for themselves.

The online harassment and threats has in some cases even led to death. Bullied kids are twice as likely to commit suicide compared to non-bullied kids, and 1 in 5 cyberbullied teens thinks about suicide; 1 in 10 actually attempts it. Each year about 4,500 teens succeed in these attempts.

The promise of cyber-stardom is so intoxicating that it has contributed to the rise of phenomena such as memes and social media challenges (videos of the latest trending challenges are uploaded online and even tackled by influential people and organizations). These means have been used by individuals or groups, and led them to become quite popular, at least in the online realm.

Most challenges are meant to entertain and provide comic relief, think Harlem Shake Challenge or this year’s obsession, the Mannequin Challenge. Yet others have flirted with disaster: remember the Cinnamon Challenge or the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge? Both have led to serious health issues, if not fatal incidents. These last two however, are nothing compared to the most recent social media trend: the Blue Whale Suicide Challenge. Yes, you read that correctly, and unfortunately it is not just some sick twisted joke. The macabre suicide game is comprised of 50 instructions that ultimately lead to the killing of oneself. Investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported: ‘We have counted 130 suicides of children that took place between November 2015 to April 2016,’ and these deaths seemed to be linked to the new Blue Whale fad. So far this horrendous trend has occurred predominantly in Russia, but lately it seems to be reaching the rest of Europe, and has been witnessed in the UK and Italy. The teens seem to be purposely leaving behind video evidences to demonstrate this disturbing spectacle, allowing it to spread even after their deaths.

More and more films as well as television shows are exploring these fatalistic facets of internet interactions and online visibility. The TV series Haters Back Off, for instance, presents specifically the pressures of YouTube stardom through the eyes of the fictional character Miranda Sings as she battles ridicule and fights for respect. The protagonist was actually created by comedian Colleen Ballinger as a satiric commentary on untalented pretentious singers who believe that sharing their videos on YouTube will lead them to fame.

YouTube is aware of complications that may arise through interactions on their platform, and Google Support’s Harassment and Cyberbullying page under the YouTube Help section is dedicated to resolving these type of issues. In fact, YouTube gives their users the option to delete comments, to report any comment they might deem to be inappropriate, as well as disable public comments altogether. However, the drawback of disabling comments completely is preventing positive and encouraging commentary from potential subscribers and devoted fans. Besides, disabling public comments doesn’t prevent private comments from flooding into one’s YouTube inbox. Eventually though, one could take the drastic measure of blocking a malicious or abusive user.

Hiding behind avatars and made-up profiles is easy, and many take advantage of this. The anonymity inspires people to push the limits to the extreme, because they feel that there aren’t any repercussions to their actions; anything goes. Often, though, the mind is a fragile contraption, and psychological abuse is very real and sometimes more damaging than anything else.

The bravest of YouTube personalities have started to post videos in which they talk about their experience with cyberbullying, and share the impact it has on their well-being, often by reading a series of negative comments out loud. Using the very same video-sharing platform to counter the problems it created in the first place? It’s definitely a start. Spreading awareness of a problem is the very first step in a long process to defeating the problem.

About the author

My name is Elena Falsini, I’m an “Informazione, Editoria e Giornalismo” postgraduate student at Roma Tre University in Rome. I’m particularly interested in the concept of communication: the spread of information through various mediums, and understanding the effects that globalization and technological advances have on the connection and disconnection between people. I have lived on all continents except for Antartica, Africa, and South America, speak 5 languages, and as a result, I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world. Sorry Bob Dylan, but in my experience, every distance is nearer than you think. While I’m at it, I believe that it’s not the distance traced by your feet that counts, but the vicinity evoked by your heart. Lastly, to create the world we want to live in, I’ll take a cue from Chuck Palahniuk, I truly feel we need to ‘model and demonstrate the kind of world you demand to live in. To write the books. Make the music. Shoot the films. Paint the art.’

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