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Media, mental health: cyber-bullying (Part II)

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Not much happens in Leila Aboulela’s lyrical first novel — because almost everything has already happened. The past asserts its presence in every moment and every exchange. Even the romance at the centre of the narrative is haunted, inseparable from the tragic love story that preceded it. Indeed, ‘The Translator’ is rooted in this tragedy — fixed on a beloved corpse that, while part of the past, remains acutely present in the lives of the central characters. Indeed, time echoes and repeats throughout the book, refusing the straight line, suspending us somewhere between heartbreak and hope. ‘The Translator’ is a sensitive portrayal of love and faith. Sammar, a Sudanese widow, lives in Scotland and works as an Arabic translator at a university in Aberdeen. Having lost her much-loved husband in a car accident, Sammar has completely abandoned herself to grief. She has spent the four years since his death almost entirely withdrawn from the world, her only comfort the five azan (daily calls to prayer) that gently remind her “only Allah is eternal.” It is not until she begins working for Rae, an agnostic Scottish Islamic scholar, that Sammar begins to imagine a happier ending to her story, boldly allowing herself to love this man and to be loved by him, despite her unsettling doubts about his potential for faith. One of the most moving elements of the novel is Aboulela’s judgment-free account of this love. Sammar’s devotion to Islam and to Rae is touching in its certainty and uncompromising in its fierceness. At first, her love for Allah is the only thing stronger than her sorrow. It grants her access to “something deeper than happiness, all the splinters inside her coming together.” But then her conversations with Rae offer her another means of escaping her tragedy: “His words were in her mind now, floating, not evaporating away. At night she dreamt no longer of the past but of the rain and gray colours of his city. She dreamt of the present.” For Sammar, both her communion with the divine and her feelings for Rae offer freedom, so she is blindsided when the two come into conflict. Of course, conflict is inevitable in a novel set in Scotland and Sudan that explores desire in the context of profound religious devotion. And in some ways Aboulela passes too lightly over the obstacles posed by this tension. But while her forays into politics and Western media manipulation of Muslim extremism can seem facile, she more than

ACCORDING to social psychologist Paul Coleman, gossiping can create a sense of self-importance for the gossiper. Gossip provides an opportunity for us to compare ourselves to others and also serves the evolutionary function of helping people bond with those with whom they share the negative views.

Slander is also a way of temporarily boosting one’s own self-esteem and minimising one’s own insecurities and anxieties. So, essentially, the act of cyber-bullying reveals more about the psychological and emotional needs of the bully rather than the victim’s life.

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These extreme judgements of someone’s personal life on social media are a typical demonstration of cyber-bullying: “an aggressive, intentional act or behaviour that is carried out by a group or an individual, using electronic forms of contact, repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself”.

Such behaviours can lead the victims to experience a wide array of psychological distress, including fear, frustration, anger, depression, low self-esteem and even an increase in suicidal ideation. Yes, cyber-bullying can lead a person to such a state of mental agony that they end up making the decision to take their own life. That is not an exaggeration. The issue of cyber-bullying is that serious and is not to be minimised by the harassers as “only teasing”, “expressing myself”, “voicing my opinion” or “just passing on information”.

The most recent significant form of cyber-bullying that has come up in the general Malawian online community is in the form of a recent online news article. Readers of either online news or WhatsApp groups – ourselves included – were earlier recently presented with a “captivating” story of a specific Malawian couple who are going through some challenges in their marriage. This story, posted on the strictly online media outlet, went to great detail to explain the crisis faced by a gentleman who had made a shocking discovery about the paternity of four children that, up until recently, he had believed to be his own. The article proceeded to explain that the information of this discovery had been shared to “family” but had eventually gone viral on social media. Presumably, this information was leaked.

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Why this news report has raised serious concerns from a mental health perspective is because of the deliberate and explicit mentioning of the names of the family’s children under question. Whatever the faults of the parents might be in this matter, the children whose names were mentioned in this article did nothing to deserve exposure to this extent on account of the behaviour of their parents.

Exposing personal details that will affect the lives and mental health of minors who are not in a position to explain or defend themselves is a form of cyber-bullying. Considering what we have discussed about the nature of cyber-bullying and its long-reaching effects, let us consider the risks that the children caught in this controversial saga have been exposed to. In the wake of this family crisis, these children have been put at the risk of facing ridicule from their colleagues at school and other social circles. Whereas the issue of their paternity might have been discussed privately as a family, the public exposure of it online raises questions of one’s personal sense of identity to the public. These children have been forced, by no will of their own, to grapple with this momentous crisis in the public eye. Feelings of isolation, loneliness and distrust of people are likely to arise through this experience.

Considering the above, it is important to educate our media outlets that their information sharing should not be at the expense of the mental health and vitality of innocent individuals. Rather information sharing should be about empowering and educating individuals about pertinent issues in their lives while also uplifting their well-being.

Our call is for our government and the relevant regulatory bodies of our media outlets to take these factors into serious consideration and operate with full knowledge of the impact that their actions might have on the mental health of the individuals being written about.

One way to instill sensitive and ethical journalism is to train reporters, editors or media groups, arming them with knowledge of psychosocial aspects of their information sharing so that they avoid inadvertently subjecting countless people to psychological trauma which they may never fully recover from. For individuals, it is just as important to be aware of the potential dangerous effects that social media can have on one’s own mental health as well as that of others.

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