The online bullying nightmare: thousands contact teen hotline

Online teen hotline already draws in over a thousand users in 2016 who seek help for various issues, including bullying

Teen support website has already registered some 1,422 interventions in just the first two months of 2016 – a further indication of the unique challenges issues like online bullying pose, both for its victims and their parents. 

Its co-ordinator, James Buhagiar, explained that given last year’s total of 3,156 interventions, 2016 was set to be a particularly productive year for the multi-platform service. He added that the service offered support to youngsters going through various challenging situations. including bullying, among others.

“Since the beginning of the year, we have also introduced a new smart messaging system, which works similarly to systems like WhatsApp, besides our long standing e-mail and chat services,” Buhagiar said, adding that the service would be launched officially later this year. 

Buhagiar explained that the service had grown significantly since its beginning in 2011, starting with an e-mail service and form, and moving on to an online chat service, and finally launching the smart messaging service. 

The service, a joint effort between SOS Malta, Salesians of Don Bosco, Agenzija Zghazagh and Agenzija Appogg, is currently celebrating its sixth anniversary and it has also just undergone changes in its website and service.

“Over time we have managed to increase the services we offer, and the number of interventions reflect that,” he said, adding that the service had also increased the times it operates in, with the organisation attempting to increase chat availability to include even Sundays.

“Our services have to respond to the trends occurring in technology, which very much dominates teenagers’ and children’s lives,” he said, explaining the decision to begin operating the smart messaging system. 

In fact, according to the data forwarded to MaltaToday, smart messaging has already led to 226 of the total interventions this year. 

Buhagiar stressed that this platform still maintained the organisation’s focus on anonymity, allowing teenagers to seek assistance even if they do not wish to be open about it.

“There’s no shame in seeking assistance, and it is the first step in overcoming any form of bullying,” Buhagiar said, adding that isolation often makes people more susceptible to bullying. 

In his comments, Buhagiar said that when someone was cut off from peers, or even family members, it became easier for them to be targeted. 

“In a way, it’s this loneliness that leads to things like cyber-bullying,” he said, adding that this was one of the most common complaints the organisation received.

Buhagiar explained that very often, fighting bullying depended almost entirely on how much help they manage to obtain, as well as the support network they have.

“The first step to defeating bullies, whether they operate in the digital world or not, is to speak to someone, which is’s ethos,” Buhagiar said. 

“It’s easier to bully someone on an online platform, because there’s an element of anonymity, and besides, it often provides a platform that is hidden from the prying eyes of adults,” he said, adding that in their experience, cyber-bullying was often a continuation of other forms of bullying.

In fact, in their comments to MaltaToday, Agenzija Appogg said that on a local level, most cases of cyber bullying treated by the agency were cases in which the bullying started at school or youth centre and then persisted online. 

“In many instances the bullies know the victim very well and there were occasions where the victim and the bully were best friends and as soon as their friendship ended the cyber bullying started,” they said.

Furthermore, the agency explained that cyber bullying is different in that it can happen day and night, given that the victim can be reached even in the safety of their own home. 

“It can seem like there’s no escape from the taunting and humiliation, and it may potentially be witnessed by thousands of people,” they explained.

Buhagiar explained that cyber attacks, which ranged from indirect comments and superimposed photos, to direct attacks and insults delivered on social media, were facilitated when and if parents were not avid internet or social media users.

“Bridging this gap is one of the best things we can do to ensure that people become more aware of this form of bullying and therefore put an end to it.”

Buhagiar explained that raising awareness about what cyber bullying is can go a long way, both in encouraging youngsters to open up about any incidences, and in helping them to avoid becoming targets. 

“Being aware of when they should or shouldn’t engage with bullies can go a long way,” he said, adding that many young people were initially unaware of what constituted unacceptable behaviour on an online platform. 

Buhagiar further explained that victims of cyber-bullying often expressed concern and fear at their loss of control, which might be externalised in self-destructive behaviour.

“Unlike the real world, virtual reality means that once something is in the public domain, you tend to lose all control over it. Self-harm is sometimes used by victims of cyber bullying as a misguided attempt to regain control,” he said, adding that luckily, self-harm seemed to have gone out of fashion.

Interestingly, Agenzija Appogg said that in some cases the reaction to the loss of control was entirely different, causing anger problems in victims. “The intense feeling of helplessness people feel when being bullied can become deeply rooted and can blow up in outbursts of rage whenever the person feels he is being threatened or cornered, even later in life,” they explained. 

Buhagiar added that users of the service had admitted to feelings of disinterest in school, and feeling lost, but that it wasn’t common for users to intend inflicting damage on themselves. However, given the anonymous nature of the service, Buhagiar explained that it was hard to determine how bullying incidences can affect victims in the long term. 

Agenzija Appogg added that in the short term, bullying and cyber-bullying could effectively lead to anxiety when using social media or e-mails, and subsequently to more withdrawal from social settings. 

The agency also explained that changes in mood, anxiety, behaviour, sleep patterns and appetite could all be indicators that someone was going through some form of bullying. 

“In the long term, cyber bullying can cause weakened self-esteem, with victims feeling helpless and like they are incapable of facing the world,” they said, adding that victims of cyber bullying may have doubts about their ability to handle social situations and incidences of conflict. 

“These feelings of weakness or incompetence can haunt them in their education, their work lives and in their relationships,” they added.

Asked about the best ways to tackle cyber bullying and make the internet safer for younger generations, Buhagiar said that there were already quite a few services available to offer support online, and that campaigns were also occasionally implemented to raise awareness. 

“Ultimately, society needs to understand that the internet and social media in general are tools, and that no matter how good their intentions are, there will always be people willing to use them inappropriately,” he said, adding that he was against the idea of blocking access to certain sites as a preventative measure. 

“The best thing to do is to truly understand the tools that are commonly used and to monitor the use of these tools as much as possible,” he added.