Cyberbullying: It's More Than Just Words

Trigger warning: Suicide, bullying. 

What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever been told? Mine is one that everyone has heard at least once in their lives: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Growing up, my elementary school teachers would repeat this phrase religiously, as if in an attempt to convince us that physical violence was the only thing that could ever hurt us. Funny, right? Now that we’ve transformed into a digitally-connected society, this outdated nursery rhyme has come back to remind me that its overly-simplified understanding of bullying brings more harm than it does good. Language is a powerful tool in that the right combination of words can inflict irrevocable scars on someone within a matter of seconds. We’re taught from a young age that punches from a schoolyard bully will hurt, but the impact of violence through words (cyberbullying) is given less attention despite the fact that it’s just as damaging. As the number of people taking part in online discourse rises, so does the need to discuss the terrifying consequences of cyberbullying. 

Photo by SMTOWN

On October 14th, Korean singer and actress Sulli (real name Jin-ri Choi) was found dead in her house. Police have ruled her cause of death as suicide. Having grown up in the limelight from a very young age, Sulli was practically a household name in the local entertainment industry; she was active in the K-pop girl group f(x) for several years as a teen before leaving in order to pursue a solo career. In some ways, her post-f(x) years can be seen as the beginning of a cycle of aggressive cyberbullying, courtesy of the general public. Sulli always had an outspoken personality, and her confidence to speak out about issues that are considered sensitive in the relatively conservative South Korea (e.g. feminism, going braless in public) made her an easy target for scandal-hungry journalists and netizens alike. I don’t want to make assumptions about what exactly pushed her to make the decision she did because in the end, I’m just a fan and don’t know the full extent of her personal battles; trying to surmise a timeline based on what she chose to share publicly would be inappropriate and disrespectful. However, the one thing I do want to mention is this: the relentless waves of vile words, words that were typed out and posted without a moment of hesitation — they were what added to her stress, emotionally scarring her in ways no one should be. I remember reading some of the many hate comments that were left on her articles and got goosebumps by the extreme vitriol that people posted; it was almost as if people didn’t see her as a human being. 

The cloak of anonymity that we wear on the internet encourages people to think that their online activities are untrackable, and therefore unable to cause serious damage. It’s so, so easy to participate in cyberbullying because of this. The reality, though, is very different. BTS’ RM was once quoted saying that “Comments saying ‘I hate him’ written in five seconds after a brief moment of thought...I thought about them for five hours, five days. They’re not worth it, but I thought about each and every one of them.” That’s how far-reaching cyberbullying is. What takes only five seconds of your time will linger in the mind of the receiver for five hours, five days, five weeks. It’s precisely the anonymous status of the commentators that make such comments all the more cutting. Think about it — you don’t know who’s saying these things about you. It could be someone you thought of as a friend (“That’s what they think of me?”), a random follower on social media (“But they don’t even know me personally!”), or even just a troll (“Why me?”). The realization that you’re being judged so harshly by someone you can never directly confront (let alone attempt to understand) only adds venom to the pain. It doesn’t matter if you’re a student or a celebrity, because the resulting hurt will always be the same. 

It might be difficult to fully comprehend the degree of trauma that cyberbullying can leave until you become a victim, but this (fortunate) lack of experience shouldn’t stop you from acting like a decent person. You don’t know what someone else is going through, and how they present themselves online may be a mask designed to protect themselves; don’t be the one who picks fights, insults others, or takes out their anger on random internet strangers. Kindness, after all, is free.