Mohamed logged onto his computer one morning to find a fan page had been created for him with false information, a picture of him wearing a wig and a declaration that he is gay.
He's only 15.
The bogus page was a "prank" set up by his classmates, one that led him to confine himself to his home for two whole months, because he was too ashamed to face his peers.
Mohamed is among the lucky ones. Cyber bullying has led its victims to major life-altering decisions like changing schools. In some cases it has even led to suicides. A study conducted by MTV and AP on digital abuse found that 8 percent of teens who have been targets of cyber bullying have contemplated suicide.
According to stopcyberbullying.org "Cyber bullying is when a child, preteen or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones.“
As the online presence of the Arab world has increased, more and more young people are socializing via cyberspace. This interaction comes with the good, the bad and the ugly. Responsible adult supervision can help prevent current cyber bullying and its negative effects on teens.
Psychologist and school counselor Howayda Sharabash says cyber bullying is harmful because online there is no face-to-face confrontation. It is premeditated, “which is the meanest kind of bullying,” and it is written, allowing the victim to read it over and over again and be harmed repeatedly. “With no audience the victim is left with his or her imagination as to the effect these words are having on their social lives,” says Sharabash.
Sharabash says two of her students had transferred to her school because they were victims of cyber bullying in their old schools.
According to Ghada Khalifa, citizenship and community manager at Microsoft Egypt, “it is important to nip cyber bullying in the bud.” Khalifa speaks of Microsoft’s initiative to create awareness on internet safety in general, including cyber bullying.
By approaching the Ministry of Education and speaking to students, teachers and parents, Khalifa says they create awareness through workshops and presentations conducted by youth volunteers.
“While students, teachers and administrators are very receptive to information on the prevention of cyber bullying, parents are very resistant to the idea of cyber bullying,” says Khalifa.
According to Laila Hassaballa, International Technology in a Global Society teacher at an international school in Egypt, “when talking to my students about internet safety and cyber bullying I found out that in middle school only four out of 20 students had guidance from their parents concerning cyber bullying.” The statistic is even lower with her high school students — out of 20 parents only two had spoken to their children.
Khalifa believes the rise in cyber bullying is attributable to adult behavior online. “With parents using foul language and attacking people who they disagree with and who carry different views than them, parents are unknowingly fostering an environment which encourages children to participate in cyber bullying.”
Hassaballa teaches her students that even posting a picture of a friend without their consent is a form of bullying.
Basem Helmy, IT security administrator at RAYA Datacenter and a youth volunteer with the Microsoft initiative, says from his visits to schools people are very interested in the information they get but that information on internet security is not as clear as it should be. He discusses social engineering and the process by which aggressors attack the mind. The more a user posts, the more a bully has to use against that user.
Nader Elewa, another youth representative, says in many cases students do not believe what they do affects their online reputation. Elewa, an 18-year-old third year computer science student at Ahram Canadian University, says his extensive experience with hacking and other computer-related information gave him insight into how to preserve one’s reputation online. This led him to give back to the community.
Sharabash believes each and every person who stands by silently watching a bully is a contributor in the damage. She says a bully usually continues what he or she is doing because they want a reaction or they are cheered on. If told to stop, a bully will probably back down.
She also believes parents must play a larger role in their children’s online world.
Sherine Shokry, a mother of three, allowed her now 10-year-old daughter to open a Facebook account. She shares the account with her daughter and checks it every day to make sure her daughter is safe. One day she found that a classmate had sent her daughter a list of swear words, “too old for his age.” Shokry contacted the classmate’s parents and she says, “they were very quick to react and found that their son’s page was hacked after they sat with him and discussed the affects his words can have on someone.”
Sharabash says, “every human being is born with the need to belong.” Victims of cyber bullying are being attacked sitting in the comfort and safety of their own home. “Online bullying leaves you feeling exposed and that sense of belonging is taken away from you.”