The work of Dr Emma Short at the National Centre for Cyber Bullying Research involves understanding the impact of Cyber Bullying and Cyber Abuse, how it affects people's lives and what might be motivating Internet trolls to engage in this deeply harming behaviour.
So I asked Dr Short what constitutes Cyber Bullying and Cyber Abuse?
"Most people working in this field agree that where there is persistenceof any particular behaviour, over and over and over again, it is then that it becomes unacceptable."
And what is considered persistent - a week, 3 months, 2 years?
"When we look at the 'traditional stalking work' there is a general framework accepted that if an intrusion or a series of intrusive behaviours occur for longer than 4 weeks and they count more than 10 occasions you can say across the line that actually you are harassing someone, that that's the threshold point.
When it is applied to online harassment and cyber abuse 10 times might happen in 10 minutes not 4 weeks, so the old threshold doesn't really work because as example shows persistency can be achieved over a shorter period of time."
Regardless of how many times the person gets harassed, how does one measure intrusion?
"Intrusions are only kind of measured in a way if the person is experiencing them as unwelcome, upsetting and creating fear. These all have to be in the equation and criteria for any kind of threshold!"
Why is there such a strong divide between how we treat off line bullying, harassment and abuse compared to the abuse carried out on the Internet?
"I don't understand it either! I think there is still no greater understanding of the impact it has on people even when they express, and even in court. Risk still seems to be assessed primarily on physical harm and I suppose the big message I'd like to get across is harm is also measured in psychological terms, and yes, that's recognised in law but even when it comes to sentencing and trials it is not given the same status!
It must be taken on board that Psychological harm by Cyber Bullying and Cyber Abuse is very damaging. People are put at risk of suicides, and where they have dependents their functioning as carers are massively compromised, they often stop being able to work so the social and economic impacts are huge.
We must understand that psychological harm is harm! "
It is not uncommon for people being cyber harassed to be advised by their human resources, legal departments and senior managements to almost literally 'bury their heads in the ground'. A TV presenter once suggested to a person she was interviewing: 'couldn't she just ignore the violent cyber threats'!
But what would happen if say for example there was a surge of anti-Semitism and Jewish people were being harassed online - would we be advising them to pretend that they were not Jews? Where does this thinking come from that if we hide and make ourselves 'invincible', that is how we best deal with cyber bullies and cyber abusers?
"Absolutely, it is incredible! Looking at some of the reports I've had, people I have spoken to affected by Cyber Harassment, they are given that advice too and they often become less active, their careers stall, because they are advised to retreat from those environments for 'their own sanity'.
Unfortunately, this behaviour gives bullies and harassers considerably more control as the biggest issue of the bullying and harassment is actually the control that the perpetrator has - they try to intimidate a person or a group to 'control' them ('you can't get me') and we are colluding with that by saying allow this control, retreat from these environments, retreat from certain behaviours, so we give the platform away to the person or persons who are abusing.
And of course we are then saying to people to remove themselves from all the positive engagement they are having, so we want them to give up that as well."
What of the notion that the biggest harm actually comes from those who standby, the 'observers'?
"There are a few notable cyber trolls that I observe, where their followings increase as their behaviour gets worse. The followers do not say anything but they grow in numbers and they are nearly all silent observers of brutal exchanges but the followers are actually the ones fuelling the brutal exchanges simply by following. So if somebody is displaying horrible behaviour and language, but they are getting new followers, why would they cease that conduct? Instead their behaviour and abuse gets worse.
When we standby we are not inhibiting cyber bullying behaviour at all. We are adding to it."
When Dr Short is looking at people responding to things which are extremely upsetting in human terms, she finds there seems to be a miss-match between looking at new media and our mistaking it for the old media.
"If we watched abuse on a reality TV, we set up confrontations and fights - things like Big Brother - we deliberately look for and put people together who have probably been profiled as likely to get in conflict with one another and the following is huge! We are allowed to do that, indeed we encourage that to be watched and we publicise it heavily.
Similar seems to happen with Cyber Bullying and Cyber Abuse, however we must be cognisant that cyber bullying is not reality TV, it is not a performance, these are real people's lives and I sometime wonder if we still as a society haven't understood the nuances in between them. It's the interaction between real individuals who have got vested interests in the things that are being attacked!"
By encouraging this abusive behaviour on public television, are we then not sending a very wrong kind of message to the anonymous keyboard cowards that it's 'ok' to abuse on Internet? How is it that we love watching programmes and get a kick where people are nasty to each other? Why does that sell and not people being genuinely supportive to each other? And how do we differentiate between the two, apart from the obvious that we can switch one off?