Digital culture has become all the more important in our social lives as we navigate a global pandemic. The face of a screen is no longer a source of personal entertainment, but our only real connection with the outside world. Most of my birthday was spent blowing out candles in front of a Skype monitor and finishing up a math test on Zoom. Everything from our next meal to our first meeting is defined by the version of ourselves we create for the Internet. And while I’m grateful that social media platforms can provide a surrogate for human interaction, I’m equally concerned by its implications.
Dr. Dhara Thakar Meghani MD
To discuss the troubling rise in cyberbullying amid the coronavirus outbreak, the Hindu American Foundation hosted a webinar featuring Dr. Abhay Dandekar MD and Dr. Dhara Thakar Meghani MD. A non-profit organization established in 2003, HAF is dedicated to educating the public about Hindus and their diverse culture. In their own words, they believe in, “promoting dignity, mutual respect, and pluralism in order to ensure the well-being of Hindus and for all people and the planet to thrive. Our positions are based on a relentless pursuit of facts; deep consideration of Hindu principles and American values, such as freedom, equality, and justice; and the input of subject matter experts.”
The webinar first outlined the nature of cyberbullying itself, which is unwanted and aggressive behavior transmitted through devices such as cell phones, computers, and tablets. While traditional cyberbullying refers to subjecting an individual to harsh criticism and public ridicule, other variants of this abuse have become more common in recent years. Doxxing, for instance, is an illegal practice by which a cyberbully releases the personal information of a victim, such as his or her home address, phone number, photograph, full name, etc. Because laws surrounding online harassment are still nebulous, Dr. Dandekar mentions, it crosses into illegal territory without detection or proper attention. And when left unattended, this digital abuse can lead to various health complications in the future, such as mental illnesses, appetite loss, and even heart disease.
What makes cyberbullying such an apt topic for this webinar is how our lives have changed amid self-isolation. For one, children’s internet activity is less likely to be monitored by their parents since they have to navigate their job and household responsibilities at the same time. The lack of structure and surveillance can often lead to destructive behavior. But children are not the only ones impacted by digital media. The virus has also led to a troubling spike in xenophobia and hate crimes, which seep through the cracks of Internet culture. A month ago, social media star Malu Trevejo was under fire for spreading anti-Asian sentiments during a session on her Instagram live. And the isolation policy makes individuals like Trevejo feel less accountable for their actions and the hateful messages they spread.
Before closing off the webinar, HAF provided some helpful advice regarding how to avoid toxicity on the Internet and forge substantial connections despite the pandemic. Dr. Dandekar recommended using platforms that allow at least some kind of physical interaction, such as video chat apps or phone calls. “If we’re going to use a device, let’s try to talk on the phone. Let’s try and have real-time visual content..these are easy things we can participate in as parents and teens and kids.” And I can understand Dr. Dandekar’s point. Personally, I find conversations with my extended family so much more meaningful when I can hear the sound of their voice or see them smiling.
It’s a gentle reminder that beyond our digital personalities we are humans, all of us trying to understand the unnavigable.
To watch the rest of HAF’s webinar and find resources, click here!