Cyberbullying - The reinvention of an existing Predicament

Web & IT | By Zororo Mubaya, Audio Specialist | 02 October 2015

Bullying is defined as the use of influence or strength to intimidate another being or forcing them to do something unwillingly. It has been prevalent for decades in society especially in schools, in families and work settings, although in adults, cases are not as reported or talked of as in young ones. Often misunderstood and perhaps wrongfully defined for centuries, bullying was once perceived as only physical or verbal, culminating in injury or death. In addition, what might seem as unacceptable behaviour today may not have seemed so a generation ago. For years now research studies and activism have helped a great deal getting a clearer definition and better understanding of bullying.

Bullying techniques have evolved over time and now involve use of smart phones, instant messaging, e-mail, chat rooms and social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to harass, threaten or intimidate victims. The advancement of technology and its extensive use in the last decade have been massive enablers of cyberbullying, which now coexists with the
physical aspect.

For as long as people have walked the earth, they have been networking through a number of ways. 

From cave drawings, roman forums, town criers, drum beating and smoke to telegrams, telephones, smart phones and the internet, just to mention a few. Today, the most common form of networking is via the Internet with over 2 billion users across the world. In this milieu, social networking has given internet users a great experience whilst many have abused its power. Think about deceitful marketing scams, viruses, spam to pornography of minors and cyberbullying. The most distinguished examples of the latter comes in the form of rumour mongering, stalking, harassment, heated exchanges, ostracism, mocking, impersonating or sharing someone’s personal information without their consent. 

Anonymity thrills many and better still on the Internet, they thrive on the idea that no one can physically watch them type a message or attempt to infect someone’s computer with a virus. Similarly the absence of restriction to a specific location where one can use the internet, and the possibility of multiple identity use by perpetrators are also enablers of cyberbullying. 

The odds of falling victim to cyberbullying and being the perpetrator are almost equal. Take for example the Tezvara (bride’s father) meme that became popular in the Zimbabwean community around the world in March 2015. A wedding guest uploaded a photograph on Facebook, with bride and groom and what appeared to be their parents captioned - Baba Vemukadzi Kana Ndimiwo, (Can you believe this – the bride’s father?). The “father” of the bride; in stripped blue short-sleeved shirt, over-sized grey shorts, beige socks and hiking trainers stood on the bride’s side looked like a caricature. In this digital age we live in, it is quite simple for private photographs to be downloaded and used out of context, on the internet with misleading captions - parading with an English Premier League team, on the monument of Zimbabwe Fallen Heroes etc to much social media aplomb. 

Users of social networking sites should know their rights when publishing photos online. For example Facebook on their Statement of Rights and Responsibility clearly states that; 

“When you publish content or information using the Public setting, it means that you are allowing everyone, including people off of Facebook, to access and use that information, and to associate it with you (i.e., your name and profile picture)”. However they go on to say; “You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user and you will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” As much as anyone can have their photos downloaded and used by anybody, there are limitations on the use especially when used on pages that prompt harassing comments on appearance or dress code or mere captioning. Take for example the Facebook page Masvingo (town in Zimbabwe) Scandals, whose objective stated by the admin; 

“This is page is for you wezhira (Masvingo resident) to inform us about what is happening in your community. The purpose is to name and shame unruly behaviour and promote peace”.

This page will post photos of individuals most likely to have been taken from networking sites then a caption of infidelity stories to the finite detail. Whether what is being communicated is true or false or based on a rumour or first hand information, it does not qualify the admin to give such data. The page goes on to post couples in intimate positions without disguising faces and obviously with no care of implications of such posts.

Concern over one’s rights when publishing photos online should be observed. For example, Instagram requires users to grant usage permission to the site when pictures are uploaded. However it does not mean they get ownership of these photos – rather, they can use them any way they like. Other services, like Flickr, allow users to set who can and cannot use uploaded photographs. Having said that if one does not want to sell or make public any of these pictures, they should use a service that leaves all the rights in their hands and be sure to check out Creative Commons for an easy way to license these photos. It is largely impossible to avoid other social networking sites’ users downloading photos in these public domains and using them. Whether perpetrators are breaking some vague law or not is the least of their worries; instead they just do it on the chance that the person will not have the means or interest to sue them.

Studies have shown that children who are bullied on cyber or physically are more likely to skip school to avoid confrontation with their tormentors or as a result of the trauma. It is estimated that as many as 160,000 students skip school nationally on any given day because of bullying. This can lead to becoming ill as a result of real repercussions produced psychosomatically, in the worst case scenario, suicide. Adrienne Nishina, assistant professor of human and community development at the University of California, Davis, explains this physiological process:

“Research with youth and adults shows that negative social interactions are experienced as particularly stressful. Stress causes the body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol impairs immune system functioning, leaving the individual more vulnerable and less able to combat
physical illnesses.”

In addition bullied teenagers are more likely to use alcohol as a coping mechanism that subsequently causes the teen to become an alcoholic on the path for self-destruction. Furthermore, a victim may become aggressive, defensive, reclusive or unwilling to participate in daily activities. For extreme cyber bullying, a victim may resort to self-harm, self-mutilation, binge drinking, binge eating and other destructive behaviors. In the long term victims bullied at a younger age may develop psychological issues as adults or more likely to become depressed by the time they reach puberty or experience social anxiety and suicidal tendencies in their adult years.


Social Media has made networking easier; however, this convenience often comes at a price. Whilst transgressions continue unabated, tracing perpetrators is now easier unlike in the past. However, in countries like Zimbabwe, law enforcement may not be well trained to deal with such situations, additionally; issues of jurisdiction also make investigations and prosecutions problematic. Having said that, victims and whistle blowers should have somewhere to turn to –a counsellor, teacher, parent or the police. Victims must not feel obliged to confront their tormentor on their own. Instead, they could limit computer connection time or ignore defamatory or threatening email messages from, unknown sources.