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Behind the screen: The anecdote of cyberbullying in Cambodia

Taing Rinith / Khmer Times Share:
A cyberbullied victim reacts to an unwelcome comment. KT/Pann Rachana

One capability of the internet and social media is to bring people closer to one another than ever, but along with these technological advances is a monster known as “the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature.” Cambodia is a developing country with a number of smartphones and internet users yet a low level of awareness on this issue. Taing Rinith explores cyberbullying in Cambodia.

Scrolling on Facebook for only a few seconds, one is likely to be exposed to mean or indecent comments. A young Cambodian woman whose Facebook name is Belle Lizzy said people have critcised her appearance.

“I got many mean comments on social media about my acne scars. I felt horrible and didn’t want to show my face to anyone,” she said. “They kept saying I’m not clean or don’t take care of my hygiene enough”.

Belle Lizzy revealed the truth is that she has a hormone problem that caused acne since puberty, so it was cruel for others to blame her for the problem. It led to the loss of her confidence and it took years for her “to be myself again”.

Many social media users are receiving indecent messages in their inboxes. A young female Cambodian, who asked to remain anonymous, said many “psychos” have been sending her vulgar pictures and comments via Facebook’s Messenger.

Although she finds them disturbing or even nauseous, all she can do is block them. “Once a man sent me a message asking whether he can be my sugar daddy. He said if I agreed, he would give me money to enlarge my breasts”.

These are examples of cyberbullying, a silent killer which has driven many young people to suicide. While it is happening everywhere around the world, research has found that cyberbullying is a very serious problem in the Kingdom.

Last year, a study involving one million young people conducted by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) found that 85.7 percent of young Cambodians aged between 15 and 25 years are in danger of online violence, cyberbullying and digital harassment.

“We’ve heard from children and young people from around the globe and what they are saying is clear: The Internet has become a kindness desert,” said Ms Natascha Paddison, UNICEF’s Officer-in-Charge Representative in Cambodia.

Research shows that youth who have been bullied are at a higher risk for suicide. According to the latest WHO data published in 2018, such suicides totaled 836 or 1.02% of total deaths in the Kingdom. To make it worse, it has been estimated that about 40 percent of Cambodians suffer from mental health and psychological problems.

Dr Pa Chanroeun, director of the Cambodian Centre for Applied Philosophy and Ethics, said this situation reflects on the overall low morale among social media users in Cambodia.

“My research in 2018 found that over 75 percent of Cambodia’s seven million Facebook users are using it in an immoral manner,” he says. “However, many of participants in my survey do not even know that they are using, posting or sending immoral messages and images.”

Chanroeun explains that there are two factors leading to this: the decade-long war in Cambodia which affected the country’s education system and the lack of “Internet and social literacy” in Cambodian children and young people.

“Practical learning on Internet and social media awareness has to be promoted in both formal education and among adults,” he said. “People also need to learn about how to deal with cyberbullies effectively, such as by seeking professional help.”

In the Kingdom, celebrities and public figures are among the people who are most vulnerable to cyberbullying, because they use social media to be in touch with their fans.

Ham Pidor, a 21-year-old influencer who grew up struggling with her body image and is now a popular plus-size model, promotes body positivity for people who feel they are not accepted because they are different. She has a lot of experience dealing with bullies and harassers online.

“Just this week, a Cambodian Facebook user commented on a photo about my weight. He said I should not have posted the picture because I look very “ugly” and I should eat less and exercise more,” said Pidor.

“Of course, that does not make me feel good, but thanks to the support from my friends; I am alright,” she said.

Catherine Harry, a Cambodian blogger popular for discussing sexual issues who has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, said that she is also having a hard time dealing with cyberbullies and online abusers.

“In many messages that I received, many male Facebook users described how they are going to have sex with me and even send me the pictures of their genitals,” she said.

“Ignoring or reporting them does not always help, so sometimes I try to take my mind off it by reading or playing sport. I wish Cambodian social media users could show more respect,” said Catherine.

Ly Dara, a Cambodian writer well-known among young people, was heavily criticised online when he published his book “Possible Crush” in which he used the Roman alphabet to write some parts in Khmer. Some of the so-called “critics” said they hoped he would “die and go to hell”.

“Of course, it is not easy dealing with this, but thanks to support of my friends and family, I was able to go through this,” he said. “If you’re standing out in public here, you have to be ready to face all of these”.

A series of in-depth interviews show that one in five girls have stopped or reduced using social media platforms after experiencing harassment or abuse on the Internet, according to a recent global report based on a survey of 14,000 girls aged 15-25 in 22 countries, including Cambodia conducted by Plan International, a leading girls’ rights organisation.

The report titled “Free to be online?” on girls’ and young women’s experiences of online harassment—found that social media plays a big role in young people’s lives, as they use social media platforms for “activism, entertainment, to learn and to keep in touch with friends and family”.

However, the survey results uncovered that girls—in both developed and developing worlds—are subjected to explicit messages, pornographic photos, cyberstalking and other distressing forms of abuse.  Reporting tools provided by media platforms, the report added, are ineffective in stopping it.

The attacks also affected the girl in their offline lives, with 20 percent of those questioned saying they or their friends have been anxious about their physical safety. Meanwhile, over 40 percent demand social media companies to set out more measures to protect them.

Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International, said over 14,000 participants, despite coming from different countries with different backgrounds, share similar experiences on the subject.

“Disappointingly, they are being left to deal with online violence on their own, with profound consequences for their confidence and wellbeing,” she said.

Albrectsen added that whereas this form of harassment and abuse are not physical, it is a threat to girl’s freedom of expression, as well as gender empowerment as a whole.

“Driving girls out of online spaces is hugely disempowering in an increasingly digital world, and damages their ability to be seen, heard and become leaders,” she said.

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