During parliamentary debate this week, House Speaker Halson Moultrie called for “something to be done” about the use of obscene language by Bahamians on social media, citing his belief that obscene, callous and insensitive social media postings are eroding the nation’s moral fabric.
His concern stopped short of an area of social media activity that legislators, law enforcement, parents and the wider public should be more focused on: cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying is the repeated and intentional harassment, intimidation and embarrassment of others using electronic devices, and is a serious issue impacting the mental health of adolescents based on published findings of global surveys and studies.
Bahamians spend many hours each day on social media sites and WhatsApp messenger, and given the wide audience and instant feedback these outlets provide, the atmosphere therein is rife for those who wish to maximize the potential of harm and humiliation to another individual.
In a 2018 survey of 28 countries conducted by global market research firm Ipsos, 33 percent of parents reported knowing a child who had been cyberbullied, 17 percent said their own child had been cyberbullied and 76 percent of parents called for more focused attention on the issue.
The region with the highest reported incidences of cyberbullying was Latin America, according to the survey, which did not include Caribbean countries as part of its sample.
Recent UK-based studies indicate that young people age 25 and under are twice as likely to self-harm and attempt suicide as a result of cyberbullying.
A 2015 analysis published by Global Pediatric Health on cyberbullying, mental health and violence in adolescents showed that of the over 15,465 ninth to twelfth grade students surveyed, girls were the likelier targets of cyberbullying and the activity had a positive correlation with violence among teens.
The data revealed that of the students who reported being the victim of cyberbullying, 20 percent reported carrying a weapon and over 33 percent of victims reported engaging in a physical fight.
Among the victims, approximately 60 percent reported having depressive symptoms, nearly 40 percent reported having thoughts about suicide and approximately one third of the victims reported having made suicide plans.
Cyberbullying statistics do not exist for The Bahamas, but a formal assessment of the impact of cyberbullying on our children and young people would be integral in determining relevant strategies to address this problem.
Users of platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp in The Bahamas know these avenues can often be toxic given the level of bullying, gossip, partisan rancor and defamatory postings that trigger fear, fights and distress.
Since electronic postings travel faster than one’s ability to react or adequately respond, victims of cyberbullying are often left feeling helpless and feeling vulnerable to assault by others who invest themselves in responding to what they see or hear.
School-aged children can be cruel even without the added toxicity of social media, and the kind of shame and worry thrust on the psyche of young people as a result of an embarrassing, untrue or threatening post is often too much for them to effectively manage.
To Moultrie’s point about obscene language postings that are eroding our moral fabric, this may be somewhat of a chicken-before-the-egg perspective since negativity recorded on video is regrettably of that which already exists often unabated in our society.
In order for vile, violent or harassing social media and instant messaging posts to be widely disseminated and accepted, there has to already exist an appetite within the population for this kind of activity.
A hurtful or salacious post cannot go viral unless people want to see it or a recipient chooses to share it with others, a choice that might not be made if the recipient stands opposed to the material and what the outcome could be if such material is disseminated.
There is a school of thought that you cannot legislate morality.
In this space we once again refer to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who on this school of thought said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.”
We need stronger laws to address cyberbullying in The Bahamas.