The ugly evolution of cyberbullying

How we progressed from passive-aggressive Myspace bulletins to kids creating two Instagram profiles—one for their friends, another for their bullies.

Myspace bulletins were the original Facebook status: whiny letters that all your followers could read. When I was 14, I sent out a passive-aggressive bulletin about a girl at school—a “faker”—copying me, which is hilarious considering everyone who used Myspace was an identikit scene kid with the same terrible DIY dye job. Not long after, she bulletined back, and the pettiest war ever broke out in front of our respective followers.

As soon as teenagers were gifted the internet, they used it to digitize their bullying. During the mid 2000s, I saw boys leak nudes of underage girls onto Facebook to humiliate them; collage videos of girls’ vacation photos, with nasty captions; slut-shaming or homophobic comments posted under selfies. On Formspring—the site that allowed people to post anonymous or named comments on your profile—girls would receive rape and death threats.

Back then, there was a fluidity between online and offline bullying. Taunts that started at school would make their way into comments; those leaked nudes would be printed and posted on lockers and line the walls like a walk of fame; bullying that happened in person was filmed on low-res, early-gen phone cameras and shared around. The bullying was more visible, to peers, parents, and teachers, who zoomed in on what they saw—disciplining others if the abuse happened on school property.

Nowadays, according to those I’ve spoken to for this article, the vast majority of bullying takes place solely online, and is arguably even more insidious and widespread than it’s ever been.

Many women now in their mid 20s have similar memories of being bullied—both online and offline—in the mid 2000s.

Claire, 24, had a Piczo site—a bit like Myspace, but with more tacky graphics and a guest page where anyone could comment, anonymously or not. “I’d get a lot of mean comments about my appearance on there, especially my bigger than average nose,” she says. This coexisted alongside the “relentless” bullying she experienced offline. “At school and around town, I’d be hit, spat at, yelled at, and my hair would get pulled. My house was egged a few times, too.”

Twenty-three-year-old Brianne* was also physically and verbally abused in person as a teen, and suffered a few bursts of online abuse, too. “I’d suddenly get 20-plus messages telling me to kill myself over Facebook and Formspring,” she says. “It’s one thing to get your backpack thrown into a lake and another thing to get a constant barrage of faceless people telling you that you’re worthless. There’s nowhere to put your anger—nowhere to shout back if they’re in the cozy safety of their own homes, away from consequence.”

“I don’t think the standard bullies at my school knew how much damage they could do via the internet at that point.”

It’s evident that teen girls have always bore the brunt of online bullying. The Cyberbullying Research Center has been collecting large samples of data since 2002. In a study of 2,000 kids aged 11 to 14 in US schools, adolescent girls were significantly more likely to have experienced cyberbullying in their short lifetimes (20.4 percent of girls vs. 14 percent of boys).

My experience of cyberbullying during that period was that it was seeped in blatant misogyny—both from men and internalized misogyny from other teen girls. Young women, along with other minority groups, had firmly embraced social media, seeing it as an opportunity for public-facing self-expression. The openness with which we shared—selfies, uploading whole albums of bikini shots from vacation, blogging diary entries, creating profiles on sites with the sole purpose of allowing people to anonymously criticize us—made us more vulnerable than we could ever be offline, and the prospect was too alluring for people who took a disliking to us.

Read more at VICE.