#SaferInternetDay: Tackling Online Abuse and Cyber-Bullying

Rising internet usage has provided enormous societal benefits; these include quick access to important information, adding convenience to hectic lives and increasingly enabling flexible working.

BitK, Ethical Hacker at YesWeHack, also highlighted how platforms such as gaming have significantly facilitated social interactions, something that was particularly important during COVID-19 lockdowns. “Many of us now spend a considerable amount of our time in the online sphere, whether it’s playing role-playing games or watching e-sports. A massive virtual community has emerged where we can interact with others, make friends and have fun,” he noted.  

Yet, as digital interactions increase, significant problems have begun to emerge. One of these is cyber-bullying and abusive behavior online. Sadly, on popular online platforms like gaming sites and chatrooms, meanness, bullying and swearing are becoming increasingly common, particularly among children and teenagers. The relative anonymity afforded and remote nature of conversations are likely significant factors in this trend, making some users believe they can get away with behaviors that would be unacceptable in the real world. In one especially heartbreaking case, a teenager from New York killed himself after experiencing cyber-bullying and online blackmail.

Heather Paunet, senior vice president at Untangle, explained: “Unfortunately, not everyone online behaves respectfully. There seems to be a certain degree of empowerment to say anything, including disrespectful and inappropriate comments, when you can remain anonymous behind an avatar or screen name. Online interactions shouldn’t be different from face-to-face interactions, meaning treat people online the same as you would treat someone in person.”

Amid this growing problem, Safer Internet Day 2022 is focusing on raising awareness among young people on what constitutes respectful behavior online, helping them know what to do if they're victims of online abuse and bullying. With this in mind, the theme for this year’s event is ‘All fun and games? Exploring respect and relationships online.’

Therefore, on this year’s Safer Internet Day, Infosecurity has compiled three actions people can take to avoid abuse to help prevent negative behaviors from occurring, making the online arena a safer and more enjoyable place for all.

Limit Personal Information Online

It is highly advisable to provide no, or at least minimal, personal details to people you only interact with online. This will prevent such information from being potentially used to abuse or blackmail you by nefarious actors. Irfahn Khimji, chief systems engineer at Tripwire, also echoes this point: “As the world has been going more and more digital, virtual interactions are more prominent than ever. The difference is that you can be anyone you want to be online. It can be challenging to identify who it is you are talking to, so it is critical to ensure not to give away personal information to those who you’ve only met online.”

"It can be challenging to identify who it is you are talking to, so it is critical to ensure not to give away personal information to those who you’ve only met online”

Joni Moore, director of security solutions at Lookout, pointed out that there are norms around avoiding giving away too much information to people you’ve met in person, and there is no reason these should not be applied to the online space. “We teach our kids to be aware of stranger danger in the real world. The same applies online,” she said.

Trevor Morgan, product manager at comforte AG, also emphasized the importance of knowing the person you are talking to: “The main point to remember is that private and sensitive information about you or anybody else should be kept private unless you absolutely know that the person receiving that information is who he or she really is and has a legitimate need for that information.”

Block and Report Bad Behaviors

On platforms like online gaming, competitiveness is rife, and sometimes inappropriate language can be used in the heat of the moment. However, this becomes a problem when inappropriate crosses the line into becoming personal abuse. In this situation, experts advise that you immediately stop engaging with those users. As Khimji said: “If you are faced with bullying or harassment, you can often block that user or even turn off your computer or mobile device and step away. It is key to remember that there is a real-world out here, not just a virtual one.”  

Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate at Comparitech, concurred, advising: “Mute the chat. If you encounter toxicity or think you might, don't be afraid to mute the in-game voice or text chat. Your comms may suffer, but you'll have a better time.”

He added: “Don't feed the trolls. Online bullies and trolls often just want to elicit a reaction from other people. After you've reported and blocked them, the best thing you can do is ignore them.”

Blocking such behaviors early will hopefully stop the problem in its tracks. However, should the abuse continue or escalate, you should consider reporting the violator’s username to the game’s abuse team. This is a view that Bischoff echos: "Learn where your game's block and report features are and use them liberally. Reporting someone once probably won't result in a ban, but if enough people report the same person, eventually moderators will take action.”

If the abuse is of a threatening nature or is targeting personal characteristics like ethnicity or gender, it may be a matter for the police. It is important to emphasize that such comments are no more acceptable or not subject to the law just because they’ve not been told face-to-face. “If the harassment becomes persistent and threatening, you can always contact your local law enforcement agency to help,” added Khimji.

Review Your Own Behavior

It is also vital for people to reflect on their own behaviors online and consider whether they are perpetrating abuse and bullying without even realizing it. This may be because they consider their comments as jokes or don’t appreciate that negative comments in the virtual world can be just as harmful as those said in real life. Untangle’s Paunet noted: “Just because you aren’t face-to-face, actions such bullying, harassment, trolling and stalking are never acceptable.”

While interacting with others online, it is important to pause and think before sending a message, considering how the recipient may interpret the comment. Paunet pointed out the importance of recognizing others’ : “Understand that not everyone has the same background as you do. Acknowledge and accept others' differences.”

She also pointed out that many online posts will be publicly accessible forever and can potentially come back to haunt you in the future. This phenomenon is known as your ‘digital footprint.’ Paunet advised: “Understand that once you write something online, it will remain accessible in some way forever. A rule of thumb to use is to consider whether you’d be ok if your closest family members or your boss were to read what you write. It can be worth waiting a while before making a fast emotional response on a public platform.”

More broadly, online users should take it upon themselves to make the internet a safer place even when not personally impacted, including intervening and reporting negative behaviors affecting others. Comforte AG’s Morgan remarked that this is a matter of  adhering to proper data security and privacy: “It falls upon all of us to respect that ideal and conform to that culture of data security and privacy, not only for our own benefit but for others as well.”

The internet has improved people’s lives in numerous ways, but these benefits risk being lost, or at least limited, by surging online abuse and bullying. As well as governments and tech firms, online users can take action to clean up the digital world, creating a safer and more pleasant environment for all to enjoy. It’s time to take back control of the internet from the trolls.

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