I hate social media. I hate its inauthenticity. I hate the unrealistic expectations it fosters. I hate how my hand instinctively reaches for my phone to check my Instagram feed in any moment of boredom. But most of all, I hate that it's become a vehicle for people to say whatever they want with zero accountability.
So when the service director of Respect Me, an anti-bullying service funded by the Scottish Government, informed me and a lecture theatre full of student teachers that face-to-face bullying is still more common than cyberbullying, I was shocked. Everything else in the world, from our self-worth to our relationships, seems to have migrated online, and yet classic schoolyard bullying is almost exactly where we left it.
It's surprising given the horror stories we hear about trolls and ruthless online harassment. Just last month, the sudden death of the South Korean singer and actress Sulli, who had been vocal about her struggle with cyberbullying and its impact on her mental health, sparked international debate on whether their should be legal consequences for posting malicious comments. Meghan Markle has dominated headlines recently after speaking out about her own experience of cyberbullying, and in September, pop star Jesy Nelson released a BBC Three documentary detailing how hateful comments online made her want to end her life.
While it is of paramount importance that the severity of these cases is not downplayed, it's equally vital that we don't get swept up in the media crusade and assume that cyberbullying has superseded traditional forms of bullying. In a study conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford, only 406 teenagers reported regular cyberbullying with no face-to-face bullying, less than 1% of the total questioned, while nearly one-third of respondents said that they had been bullied at least twice a month in the previous two months, either face-to-face or online.
Bullying undoubtedly takes place on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other platforms. But while we spotlight the evils of social media, we inadvertently keep the bullying that takes place in school stairwells, playgrounds and classrooms in the shadows.
In fact, it seems like social media has become the perfect scapegoat for everything wrong with modern society. Think kids are spending more time online? Blame social media. An election didn't go the way everyone thought it would? Blame social media. Increasing visibility of misinformation and 'fake news'? Yup, social media. It's as though social media is the new go-to Hollywood villain at the centre of society's ills. It used to be rap music, then it used to be video games, for a few minutes it was Quentin Tarantino movies, and now, it's social media's turn.
The sad truth is that bullying has been around a lot longer than social media. In fact, research suggests that bullying is in our DNA, with evidence showing that displays of dominance among animals like baboons and chimps results in social and personal benefits like lower stress levels. Similarly, humans who have more dominance in the form of higher social status tend to have better overall health and well-being. In essence, there is a science to putting others down to boost ourselves up that predates Facebook and Twitter.
It's not social media that's the problem – it's us. It's easier to blame faceless online trolls, but there are real, living, breathing bullies all around us all the time. Take the media for example. In 2017 alone, the Daily Mail
was censured by the press regular over 50 times for infractions related to immigration, refugees and Muslims. Between David Cameron talking about 'a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean' and Philip Hammond labelling migrants as marauders, even our political leaders are guilty of promoting negative stereotypes and verbal intimidation.
Just the other week, our Prime Minister dismissed Paula Sherriff's concerns over the safety of MPs as 'humbug' after she pleaded with him to not use words like 'surrender' in the Brexit debate, claiming that this inflammatory language was fuelling abuse and death threats towards MPs online. Such crass, insensitive remarks are the hallmarks of bullying behaviour, as is the incapacity to exercise introspection and admit when you have spoken or behaved out of turn.
I still hate social media. Not because I believe it is inherently evil, but because it is so easily misused. It's convenient to blame faceless and diffuse online platforms for our shortcomings, but people were bullying one another long before the age of social networking, and the research suggests we'll be doing it long after we've exhausted the selfie and documenting our every thought. Online trolls are a distinctly modern phenomena but they take their cues from the real world and the bullies in charge of it.