PEOPLEACT project manager and Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights member Lim Ka Ea sheds light on what can be done to tackle cyberharassment.
Question: As more people use social media, do you think cyberharassment will worsen if not addressed?
Answer: We’re entering an Internet era where people are spending more and more time on social media, particularly the younger generation. While the Internet has allowed billions of people from all over the world to connect and interact easily and affordably, it also comes with a lot of emerging issues that we never had to face before.
For instance, the fact that you can be anonymous or use a fake name on social media makes it easier for people to do nasty things because they think they’ll never be caught. And, because information travels so quickly and widely across borders, even a stranger living across the globe can participate in a “mob attack” against someone.
If we don’t address this issue, the younger generation will grow up to accept cyberharassment as part and parcel of life.
Q: PeopleACT conducted a national survey from June to December last year. What are some takeaway points from the study?
A: One takeaway is that the perception that violence is only associated with physical harm is dangerous because we then trivialise many issues that affect groups that are more susceptible to online stalking, such as death and rape threats against women.
This sends the message that it’s okay and acceptable to do all these things online, never mind the emotional and mental trauma it inflicts on victims.
The other key takeaway is the need to educate the public on the difference between criticism and harassment. About 20 per cent of respondents think criticism is a form of online violence. This has an impact on freedom of expression, which is crucial in a democratic country where differences of ideas and opinions are to be embraced.
This is the ultimate challenge we face — getting people to discuss, talk and debate what crosses from one’s right to expression to harassment. Balancing that is the challenge.
Q: What is the most effective way to move forward?
A: While we think having a legislation to address this issue can be a solution, it’s not going to be sufficient if there are no combined efforts to educate the public, lawmakers, law enforcers and industry players.
For any new law, it must be complemented with consultation and education at all levels. Stakeholders, policymakers and the media must generate public discussions on how to address this issue together.
Trauma can have lasting impact, says expert
OFTEN, the impact of harassment is worse and lasts longer than the harassment, says Dr Yeo Pei Li, a licensed professional counsellor at the Rekindle Centre for Systemic Therapy.
“Experiencing harassment can be traumatic and can increase the person’s tendency to develop anxiety or depression, loneliness, anxiousness, fearfulness, shame, rejection and powerlessness.
“Mentally, they may be shocked and in disbelief. Eating and sleeping patterns may change. Some have nightmares.
“They may also lose confidence, and relationships with friends and family may suffer. If left unattended, there’s also a suicidal risk.”
Based on a Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission survey this year, 80 per cent of Internet use in Malaysia is on social networks. Internet users have an average of four social media accounts, and spend four hours a day on social media.
Studies show that parents are often unaware of their children’s cyberbullying experience, whether as cyberbullies or victims, Yeo says.
“Parents need to be mindful of their children’s online activities. They need to be educated on the problem, know how to discuss it with their children, recognise the signs and be able to work closely with schools.
“Have your child unfriend or block the bully wherever possible. Tell your child not to bully or retaliate.
“Do not minimise their fear and worries, instead be supportive and let them know you’re there to help.
“If things don’t improve, emotionally and psychologically, do get help from healthcare professionals and the authorities.”
She says receiving death or rape threats and abusive comments can be an extremely traumatic experience, but it can be reduced, and with therapy, the experience can be a learning tool instead of a road to destruction.