As young people, we experience so much of our lives through social media. In certain ways, it can make us feel more connected. We have more access to the people around us and more access to the world. However, in other ways, it can make us feel more removed. The interactions that we have through social media always happen with at least one degree of separation; these interactions are literally mediated through our electronic devices. We get to choose how to access others but have little control over how others choose to access us. This ultimately leaves us in a strange position in our digital space; we are easily able to stay in contact with other people, but it can often seem like there is little we can do to stop unwanted online contact.
Online harassment is a serious problem and, according to Statistics Canada, people from the ages of 15 to 24 years old are the demographic most likely to experience cyberstalking. The severity of the problem is often minimized because it is always mediated through technology, and yet the ease of access created by social media means that online harassment can feel even worse than in-person harassment because there are almost no ways to leave our online spaces.
This means that cyber harassment can invade all of our spaces, and yet somehow be made to seem normal. The harm that we experience due to online harassment can be erased or minimized. This can also, therefore, distort how we perceive the online harassment caused by or experienced by others. It can seem unimportant, and our impulse can be to ignore it because it might seem like it will pass on its own.
However, this isn’t true. The harm caused by cyber harassment is real, and no one should be made to feel like their experiences are invalid simply because they occur online. We need to support each other in our online spaces and not limit the principles of being an active bystander to our in-person interactions. When we see someone experience harassment online, we need to support them, and we need to foster a culture where we do not accept or write off these kinds of behaviours. We need to respect the boundaries established by others online and need to speak up when we see others’ boundaries being violated. Fighting online harassment means realizing how close it can come to us, and refusing to let it be normal.
Social media has the potential to bring us closer to others in new and innovative ways. If we want to be able to explore all of the potential of our technology, though, we have to use it to keep each other safe rather than ignoring all of the ways that it cause us harm. Report online harassment when it happens, reach out to those who are targeted with it, and have conversations with the people around you about supportive and healthy online behaviour. We are not as separated from each other online as we might seem, and we need to use our connections to strengthen our networks. Online harassment is unacceptable, and we deserve better in the spaces that we occupy.