Monday, November 10, 2014

(Series Piece 5) Anna Kavanaugh - Syndicated Columnist. Column - Cyber Abuse: The Virtual Violent Crime

Written by: Anna Kavanaugh, Syndicated Columnist
Published for syndication by: The Global Institute for Cyber Safety and Standards

I still remember that first day. It was the mid-90's and the afternoon had come for the installation of my own personal home computer. I laugh as I recall my excitement, wonder, awe, and undeniable intimidation of this heavy cream-colored block of technology that was the most awkward monstrosity in comparison to computers today. At the time, it was a cutting edge, top of the line PC, and as one of the first in my circle of young friends to own one, I sure felt like some kind of newly appointed royalty, or at least the cat’s pajamas. It was such an innocent time and I feel a bit sad knowing the naivete of it all is now lost to nostalgia. I will always have my memories; when Alta Vista was the King of Search Engines, when type-chatting in real-time with someone in Australia felt like harnessing the great powers of the universe, when the buzzing and beeping of a dial-up connection was an anticipatory delight, and the words, “You've Got Mail,” sent shock-waves of joy straight through me.

Yes, this internet thing was marvelous and I owned it! Nobody taught me how to use it. Nobody warned me about what could happen to me if I did. In between the chat rooms, email, online- games played live with others, and the wealth of information available to me at my fingertips, I had no idea the internet could destroy lives. None of us did. All of us old enough to witness the virtual birth of what would become a new and simultaneous civilization to the physical one we knew were tossed into the growing pains of something we could not fully comprehend, had no set of rules or guidebook for using, and could not have been expected to possess the foresight to predict what would come. That was then. This is now.

Thank goodness for our elders. Tragic accidents do happen, but it is fair to say that most of us never set ourselves on fire to find out flames would burn or drank poisonous cleaning chemicals to discover we would die from ingestion. We have an ingrained knowledge that certain sounds are soothing and ring of love, while others are harsh and uncomfortable even if we do not understand why. It is part of the same internal program that directs us to keep our mouths closed and our elbows off the dining room table when eating, clothe ourselves in the morning rather than running around naked, brush our teeth to prevent them falling out, and to know that committing acts of unruly behavior, theft and violence is wrong. We do not question these things nor do we require evidence of them. We were not born with this knowledge. It is a subconscious part of who we are because our parents began teaching us these things, and so much more, from the moment we entered this world.

In the mid-90's, a new virtual world was born; one destined to intermingle and interact with our daily physical lives. A world we, and all those who come after us, must navigate responsibly to ensure our safety, and the safety of others. We all possess a degree of common sense and have been rudimentarily warned through the years that to best protect ourselves we should never give online strangers our name, address, or other identifying details. But that is about where the advice, primarily geared toward keeping our children safe from pedophiles and young women safe from potential rapists, ends. Who is advising us about cyber-abuse; the kind of abuse that takes place every relentless day across the vast expanse of cyberspace and over any number of online networks? Who is teaching us how to keep our lives from being destroyed by online criminals who steal from us, release our private information, or plant blatant lies and false realities about us in the permanency of the public domain all in a malicious assault to tarnish our reputations so badly our personal and professional lives may never recover? Who is protecting and healing us from the extreme brutality and severe trauma inflicted on us by vicious and dangerous cyber-abusers running free throughout the halls of cyberspace every day, armed and aimed to kill? Who is teaching us how to save our lives, and the lives of others, from the fulfillment of suicide; like the online victims desperate to find relief from the emotional and mental pain, but cannot find recourse or means to escape those who relentlessly torment them? Who is teaching us not to be so cutting and heinously cruel to others online that it drives them to want to die? Who is explaining to us why cyber-abusers are allowed to commit virtual violent crimes under the mask of anonymity and the lack of accountability that comes with it? Nobody.

Like all pioneers, there is no one ahead of us to show the way. Nobody was there at the dawn of this new technological era to pass down their wisdom from hard lessons learned or to warn us of the turbulent waters we would sail through while learning what the internet was really all about, and how many of us would not survive the trip. We’re it. And because we’re it we have a great responsibility to those who are born today with a pacifier in one hand and an iPod in the other. We have learned enough and cannot deny it any longer. It is time to make our wisdom an intrinsic part of our children. Any parent hopes to make the world a better place so our children and their children will be better for it. We can all still learn, even now, and we must. We can create a safer online environment. We can learn to be more aware of our behavior and the damage it can cause others, we can learn to understand how little difference there really is between the physical and virtual worlds we live in today, and we can see to it that our lawmakers pass better legislation to enable law enforcement to provide faster and more effective recourse to online victims. But for all the things we can still learn, it will never come with the benefit of intrinsic wisdom, like that we can give our children. Without intrinsic wisdom, our knowledge is much more likely to be jaded, manipulated by own motivations, and questioned.

It is too late to begin imparting intrinsic wisdom into the programming of our pre-teens and teenagers about online safety and the fundamental basis for decency and kindness when traversing the virtual world. They are an unfortunate casualty rolled into the rapid growth of this medium and often, poor parental guidance and/or example. Can we expect young people to behave any differently than the adult behavior they so often witness on the internet? If you are a parent it is crucial to show your children that you are decisively opposed to, and categorically revolted by, cyber-aggression and cyber-assault of any kind. If you are a parent engaging in cyber-abuse and allowing your children, who are also your online peers, to witness your participation in the public maligning, humiliation, violation of basic rights, rape of dignity, and the vicious propagation of gossip and blatant lies about others, what are they learning? Cruelty. Who are they learning it from? You. Is that the future you want for them? Teach them to be better than you and better yourself in the process. And remember this: your children may not grow up to be like you. Instead of a cyber-abuser, they may one day find themselves the cyber-abused and contemplating suicide as their only means to escape their deep emotional wounds and profound trauma. It can happen to anyone, at any time, and for any reason. Your children will not be immune and the example you set for them now will determine how well they may deal with it in the future should they, or those they will love, ever become a target.

We must begin to instill intrinsic wisdom in our children. We must realize that even infants are beginning to interact with the online world in some way and that many toddlers are utilizing mobile devices on their own today. The internet and its technology are, and will continue to be, an inseparable element to the world for children born today. If we do not program and equip our children with the behavioral code of conduct they will need to avoid online hazards for themselves and others, we are remiss in our duty as both internet pioneers and as parents. Imagine if our parents had never taught us that fire would burn, chemicals could kill, and chewing with our mouths open is just plain rude.

As we teach our very small children to play with their siblings, share their toys, to look both ways before crossing the street, not to hit or hurt their playmates, and to obey the authority of their elders, we must teach them that people are indeed “real” inside cyberspace – and that they can be hurt. They must grow up to understand that virtual violent actions are crimes and have consequences that can sometimes kill. We tell our children that if they cannot say anything nice, they should say nothing at all. It is imperative we extend these teachings to the internet where for some people it is so easy to say whatever they want, regardless of the pain or damage it may cause others.

Teach your children well. Help ensure for them a safer, kinder, and more responsible future in the online world. A world they will spend even more time participating in than we already do.


  1. Right enough with the gobby bastards and miserable cows. Teach the same proper manners for the internet as you would anywhere else.

  2. I've read all your wonderful columns Anna and am always moved by how you explain things in your own special way. This one made me feel emotional to think about how true what you're saying is. So easy to lose sight! All this hate and abuse spewn about online as it stands is a terrible future for our children to inherit from us. I love the terminology you're using. intrinsic wisdom. True we are pioneers and we are the parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, teachers, day carers for all children we're in contact with. What example do they see out of us when they get online? Of course they'll mimic what they see as children do. We're teaching them this is ok by example! Bitter pill to swallow. Anna, God love you dear one for making us think about these things. I know I'll be a better parent and auntie to the children in my life when it comes to teaching them about the internet just from reading this. One thing that stands out in this one is the realness of the internet being with real people in it who can be hurt in terrible ways and even abused enough to suicide. That's a connection we aren't making well enough and enforcing into our children. We have to do better by our children. You remind they look to us for all learning. We shouldn't be releasing our kids into the internet without better education starting straight away just as we would teach them to look after their teeth or mind their manners.

    1. Shannon, thank you for your insightful comments on this week's installment of Anna's column. Please continue to share your thoughts with us and if you would share with others to help spread Anna's message about cyber abuse and a safer future for the internet it would also be appreciated. - David Simms, The Global Institute for Cyber Safety and Standards

  3. The internet gets unfairly blamed. When it first came about it didn't start with the trolling hate and cyber bullying going on. That's a monster of our own creation. I surmise because we could get away with it anonymously? I doubt very much it can ever be friendly land but you hit the nail on the head. The only way it will change is by changing ourselves and we know that won't happen so it's up to the new generations coming up behind. It's not much of an exaggeration when you say they're born with an ipod in one hand. Really we looked at the internet all wrong from the start - like it was another world. It's not we live in one world and the internet is only another means of communication we use in it. We don't step into an alternate solar system. I don't know why it happened but somewhere along the line we forgot the rules of social conduct and the laws we live by still apply. Things are headed for worse if we don't snap out of it and teach new generations the same rules of morality apply. Thanks for the great article.

    1. Hey Reece, you've some interesting feedback, thank you. It's a pet peeve of mine when people draw a distinction between the internet and what they refer to as the real world. The internet is the real world comprised of real people.The damage to the lives of abuser victims is anything but virtual. Hope you'll continue to follow Anna's brilliant column and share your thoughts. - David Simms, The Global Institute for Cyber Safety and Standards

  4. Home run. A lot to contemplate, well done.