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Schoolyard nightmares extend their reach in digital age

A mobile app developed by families of bullying victims offers grotesque real-life experience of cyberbullying, currently rising among teens

March 27, 2023 - 15:42 By Yoon Min-sik

"R-r-r-ring! R-r-r-ring!"

Picking up the phone, I was greeted by a barrage of harsh words.

“Why won’t you check your f---ing messages? You that eager to die? See what happens next,” Minji, my supposed “friend,” spat before hanging up.

An alarm on my phone notifies me of an invitation to a chat room, the members of which seem to be in a competition to see who could be crueler to me.


The above is content from “Cyberbullying Vaccine,” a mobile app developed by an association of families of students who were victims of cyberbullying. Upon installation, it simulates the phone of a female student who is being bullied both physically and verbally by her classmates.

The recent success of the Netflix original series “The Glory” has reignited the nation’s concern over violence inflicted on students by their peers, renewing calls for countermeasures against bullying in both schoolyards and in cyberspace.

On Friday, a local organization, the Blue Tree Foundation, held a campaign in Seoul decrying school violence and cyberbullying. The Ministry of Education announced that it will roll out new measures against school bullying next month, sparked by a recent controversy involving bullying allegations against the son of the disgraced former National Office of Investigation head nominee.

Between campaigns, a hit TV show depicting the vengeful path of a bullying victim and nationwide furor over the son of a powerful man leading the life of someone elite while his victim still suffers, the nation -- at least on the surface -- seems more wary than ever toward violence among students.

But the numbers indicate that there is a long way to go before eradicating schoolyard bullying that has expanded to cyberspace, with a recent study showing an upward trend in cyberbullying among teens.




Vicious cycle


The insults spilled over onto Facebook, along with my address and phone number, and outrageous accusations about my supposed promiscuity. The tormenting continued, as messages laced with profanities lured by fake invitations flooded my phone.

The rare voices of comfort from my mother and brother were quickly drowned out by the tsunami of malice.


The creators of the Cyberbullying Vaccine, which has been available since 2018, said that the application was created so that people who have never been subject to cyberbullying can see what it was like to be on the receiving end of such cruelty. Indeed, being bombarded by such vile messages, receiving nasty calls and having humiliating photos of oneself distributed on the web is a jarring, infuriating and humiliating experience even despite the knowledge that it is not real.

A survey of 9,693 elementary, middle and high school students released on Friday by the Korea Communications Commission, revealed that 41.6 percent of the respondents said they had "experienced" cyber violence as either a perpetrator, victim or both. It was an increase of 12.4 percentage points from the same survey taken the year before.

The number of those who had been victims was 21 percent.

Verbal abuse was the leading form of cyberbullying, at 33.3 percent, followed by slander (16.1 percent), stalking (7.7 percent) and sexual harassment (6.1 percent). The biggest on-year spike was in the verbal abuse category, which more than doubled compared to 16.4 percent the previous year.

An annual survey about school violence conducted by the Education Ministry confirms a similar trend: More bullies are better at using words than actual physical violence when inflicting pain upon their victims.

The ministry’s 2022 figure shows that 14.6 percent of school violence took the form of physical abuse, while 41.8 percent was verbal.

“I don’t think there’s many kids inflicting obvious physical pain on other kids, but it’s more insults and cursing. That (verbal abuse) is much harder to prove for the victims than if you have a scar or bruise on your body,” said 20-year-old college student Lee who recently graduated high school.

He also pointed out that many students have lost faith in the school or education authorities’ abilities to protect them. The aforementioned ministry survey showed that 17.3 percent of the school violence victims who did not report their cases cited that they thought “it would be no use.”

According to a 2022 study by the Korean Educational Development Institute, 39,396 students reported a case of verbal abuse to the authorities, but 13,889 -- roughly 35 percent -- said their cases had not been resolved.

“It’s vague as to which cases should be reported, so many times kids just say, ‘Forget about it,’ unless it’s really severe,” Lee said.

The aforementioned survey by the KCC indicated a vicious cycle of cyberbullying among students. The 79.9 percent of the students who participated in cyberbullying said they had been a victim before, and the chief reason cited by the cyberbullies was “for revenge (on the victim)” -- at 38.4 percent.

This is a screengrab of a mobile application Cyberbullying Vaccine, which simulates the phone of a female student who is being bullied both physically and verbally by her classmates. (Cyberbullying Vaccine)
This is a screengrab of a mobile application Cyberbullying Vaccine, which simulates the phone of a female student who is being bullied both physically and verbally by her classmates. (Cyberbullying Vaccine)

This situation hints at the contagious effects of cyberbullying, particularly among youth.



Words that kill


Research has shown that cyberbullying can have a damaging impact on the physical well-being of an adolescent's brain.

A US study published last year showed that young adolescents who had been targeted by cyberbullying are more prone to suicidal thoughts and attempts, an association “significantly over and above other suicidality factors,” such as offline peer aggression experiences.

Researchers from the Lifespan Brain Institute and the University of Pennsylvania analyzed data samples of over 10,000 US children aged 10-13 between 2018 and 2021, in a study published in JAMA Network Open, a monthly open-access medical journal published by the American Medical Association.

They found that while being subject to cyberbullying was linked to suicidality -- defined as thoughts of suicide and actual suicide attempts -- being a perpetrator of cyberbullying was not.

A joint study by researchers from Sunchon National University and Yuhan University found that 54.4 percent of college students who had experienced bullying in their adolescence had contemplated suicide, and 13 percent had actually tried it. Surveying 1,030 students aged between 19 and 27 in 2020, the scholars also found that bullying victims are 1.9 times more likely to contemplate suicide, and 2.6 times more likely to try.

“This shows that being targeted by bullying in adolescence affects early adulthood,” the researchers noted.

Unlike the quest for vengeance by the protagonist of “The Glory,” many victims go on to live with serious emotional scars for the rest of their lives, some of which are cut tragically short.

The Cyberbullying Vaccine concludes with the teenage protagonist, overwhelmed by the brutal bullying, writing a will to her family before ending her life. While the experience itself is merely a reenactment, the will and the pain are from the real-life tragedy of a cyberbullying teenage victim.


“Sorry mom, sorry dad. I know you have been worried so much about me. I tried to do the best I can by myself, but the bullying just keeps getting worse. I’ll be waiting for you on the other side. I’m so sorry to my family, and I love you.”

The above is an excerpt from the will of a 13-year-old student who took her own life after being subject to cyberbullying, cited by the Cyberbullying Vaccine app.


If you’re thinking about self-harm or suicide, contact the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s helpline 1393, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.