In their one-off special “Cyberbully”, Channel Four have tapped in to an issue that is prevalent, widespread and troubling – statistics from the i-SAFE foundation suggest that over half the adolescent population have been victims of cyberbullying at least once, and around the same number again have acted as the bullies. This is important to recognise – it is not a minority of individuals acting as the bully, as might have been the case with the traditional school bully trope, rather, online disinhibition has led to widespread and accepted standards for how adolescents treat each other online. Given the pervasive nature of cyberbullying, it is remarkable that it has received so little attention within pop culture (barring some pretty atrocious looking films). Cue Maisie Williams (of appearing as the perpetual bad-ass Arya Stark in HBO’s Game Of Thrones) then, to take on the gauntlet of capturing the experience of both the bully and the bullied in this taut 65 minute tumble through the online world.
Spoilers (perhaps) to follow; in this drama, Williams appears as Casey, an apparently typical teenager – planning a trip to Barcelona for the summer holidays, bemoaning boys and the fact that her mum just got a snapchat account. Unfortunately for Casey, an apparently normal night is ruined when her ex-boyfriend’s twitter account posts compromising information about her use of anti-depressants. In her state of shock, Casey accepts an offer from a classmate to hack her ex’s twitter and post a retaliatory tweet. Within the first 10 minutes then, the writers have done well to showcase the fact that cyberbullying is not isolated to one or two individuals – given the opportunity, many of us may find it hard to resist turning the tables on the aggressor, and becoming the bully ourselves. Given the disassociation between our virtual and real life selves, and the fact that the consequences of our actions are much harder to gauge in the online world, this is perhaps unsurprising. The plot takes another turn when the classmate Casey thinks she has been talking to, is revealed to be an anonymous cyber-vigilante, out to defend victims of cyberbullying. What follows is a classic cat and mouse exchange, (although rather than taking place in a face-to-face environment, it is here uploaded to instagram and run through a series of filters), where Williams is in fact the only on-screen character for the better part of an hour.
I won’t get too much further in to the plot, as there are a couple of twists and turns that act to challenge the nature of who the bully is in the scenarios that unfold, but I will briefly talk on what this show did well, both dramatically and psychologically. With regards to the former, the isolation of the plot to one character, in one room, with the details of Casey’s relationships both on- and off-line emerging in realtime was a risky move; it demands a pretty nuanced performance from its lead. Thankfully, for the most part, Williams rises to this challenge with impressive skill. There are a few moments of less subtle dialogue, but I’m not sure whether that’s the fault of the scriptwriter, or whether that is in fact how adolescents now talk online – given the ever-changing, fluid nature of online life, the latter is perfectly likely. I might also have liked to see a little more focus on the repercussions of Casey’s own bullying – but I recognise that having a negative resolution to a one-off drama may not have pleased the executives at Channel Four who were handing out the money for this project. In terms of the Psychology behind the work, there’s plenty here to be lauded. In particular, I thought the focus on the “everyone is doing it” normative aspect of cyberbullying was an important one. Casey’s shout of – “Of course it’s not OK, it’s fucking nasty, but it’s normal, it happens” acts to perfectly summarise why cyberbullying is such a dangerous and widespread activity. When negative, exclusionary behaviours become normalised, there appears much less incentive to challenge those perpetrating the behaviour, or even to act as a positive bystander for your friends. One might hope that shows such as Cyberbully provide a positive reminder to adolescents and adults alike that such behaviours are not acceptable; their repercussions and consequences are widespread beyond the immediate victim, and those involved should be treated in the same way one might tackle a playground bully.
February 2nd, 2015