During her TED Talk last week, Monica Lewinsky spoke at length about how the digital revolution played a very prominent role in the wake of her affair with then-US President Bill Clinton.
"When the story broke it broke online. It was one of the first times that the traditional news had been usurped by the Internet for a major news story," she explained. "I went from being a private figure to being a publicly humiliated one worldwide. There were mobs of virtual stone-throwers.
"I was branded a tart, a slut, a whore, a bimbo. I lost my reputation and my dignity and I almost lost my life. Seventeen years ago there was no name for it but now we call it cyberbullying or online harassment.”
However, Ms Lewinsky is far from the only figure, celebrity or not, to be on the receiving end of this modern phenomenon. The Internet, for all the opportunity and benefits that it affords, has also provided the anonymity that enables us to vent our most hate-filled and vindictive thoughts, largely without repercussion.
Although not restricted to young people, cyberbullying is particularly prevalent among children and teenagers, with reports indicating that 22 per cent of 11 to 16 year-olds have been the victim of cyberbullying. The problem is evidently widespread, but what can be done to prevent it?
Certainly, it is important to inform young people about what can be done to restrict online harassment, even if preventing it is unlikely. Children often suffer in silence, so it’s up to parents and teachers to ensure that they have an awareness of what to do.
Firstly, if they are being targeted by online abuse, they need to inform a trusted adult about the situation. They should also be made aware of the official channels where they can block or report an individual for taking part in cyberbullying. Facebook has a report link, so you can flag abusive content easily, while Twitter now enables users to print off a police report so they can easily bring the matter to the attention of the local authorities.
Often, it is best not to respond directly to cyberbullying as this can escalate the situation. Individuals should also remember that just because they may not be the target of online abuse, they can still help prevent it. Not liking or sharing abusive content is a given, but you can also report it even if it isn’t aimed at you personally.
Of course the difficulty is, particularly if you’re in the public eye, removing one hurtful comment or blocking one individual poster does little to stem the tide, as the sheer scale of abuse is often too great. Many have left social media for this very reason, as the ease of setting up an account under a fake name means the abuse can be relentless.
The difficulty of pressing formal charges against individuals spreading abuse online adds another challenge to tackling the problem. Cyberbullying is not illegal per se in the United Kingdom, although it can be considered a criminal offence under the Protection from Harassment Act and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.
Although, there are legal and technical difficulties to dealing with cyberbullying, ultimately the real issue is a human one. The Internet is simply a reflection of its users and therefore society. It has, in Monica Lewinsky’s words, extended the “echo of embarrassment.” Instead of a negative comment being shared with those in your immediate social group it can now reach millions online in seconds – amplifying the pain it causes.
If we are to ever get rid of cyberbullying, we must first tackle the issue of bullying generally and that is a long-running problem that sadly shows no signs of being resolved.