I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with conversations about ‘cyberbullying.’ I fear that by emphasizing ‘cyber’ the term clouds what’s really going on. Don’t get me wrong – the internet, like all technologies before it, has altered the dynamics of bullying, but why didn’t my generation speak of ‘telebullying’? Three-way calling allowed people to bully from home with others virtually present for the attacks. Of course, I know the answer to that… bullying over the internet is not just a technological advance of bullying, but an advance that makes the attacks visible to adults while using a medium that confounds adults.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that bullying that takes place in mediated publics (blogs, social network sites, etc.) and through private messaging in a surveilled computer (IM, email, etc.) is visible to adults in ways that note-passing, bathroom-wall-scribbling, and phone bullying just aren’t. Most kids are smart enough to do physical bullying outside of the view of adults, but a huge amount of physical bullying takes place at school where adults are nearby: recess, bathroom, school bus, under the bleachers at games, school carpark, etc.
In some senses, I’m glad that adults can see what terrible things take place amongst peer groups, but I’m unbelievably frustrated by how most of those adults emphasize the CYBER rather than the BULLYING. It’s as if the internet is the cause of the bullying. The internet does not cause bullying, but it does MIRROR and MAGNIFY bullying.
Although I don’t know of any data on this, I would bet that 99% of cyberbullying is committed by someone the victim knows offline. (The exceptions would be those who have an active online social life amongst strangers in environments like WoW or the blogosphere; because of stranger danger, this is increasingly rare.) I have yet to run into Jekyll & Hyde story where a bully is friendly in person (except when in front of adults), but a devil online. (Note: this comes back to the adult-centric view of bullying. Just because kids appear to be sweet to one another in front of you doesn’t mean that they are when out of your sight.) What happens is that the internet becomes yet-another medium for bullying.
This is what I mean by mirroring… For most teens, the internet mirrors the dynamics that take place offline. Bullies offline are bullies online. Troubled kids offline are troubled kids online. Yet, because adults typically only see the online exposures, they think that they are just bullies or troubled online. This is where we’re fooling ourselves. If you see a troubled kid or a bully online, bet your bottom dollar that an offline intervention is needed. The internet is not the problem – it’s the mirror.
One of the things that makes mediated bullying insidious is that it doesn’t end when the school bell rings. I remember this from the phone calls. The trick was to answer the phone before your mom did so that she didn’t realize what was going on (because it’s mega embarrassing to have your parents involved with being tormented by peers and if you didn’t get to the phone first, they would sucker up to your mom so that you couldn’t tell how cruel they were being). Given the amount of time spent on the internet, it sucks to be constantly tormented there – it’s like having the phone never stop ringing.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only way in which the internet magnifies bullying. Those four properties that I talk a lot about – persistence, searchability, replicability, invisible audiences – change the dynamics of bullying too. Bullying graffiti gets cleaned up in a day; it’s a lot harder to clean up online spewage. The properties that I talk about change the rules of scale. There aren’t that many venues where you can bully someone offline in front of a large audience without attracting adults; it’s a lot easier to do it online. The properties of bits (primarily replicability) make it a lot harder to tell what is ‘real’. How do you know if that IM conversation really happened or if it was doctored before being passed on?
Now that Facebook has hit high school, things like the News Feed pass on more than who dumped who – rumors and bullying fly far faster and farther than news of Barack being on the site. With each new technology, there is bullying… This isn’t going to stop with social network sites. Already I’m seeing the mobile phone operate as the best bullying tool ever. My favorite technique to watch is the text bombing tactic. If you know that someone only has 1000 text messages per month, send them 2000. Because most carriers don’t let people block specific numbers for texting, there’s no way to stop the $.10 fees that build up. This means that the target of bullying is going to literally have to pay or change their phone number. (Parent-to-parent calls rarely stop bullying so ratting out the bully typically does little to stop the tormenting.)
So, are we going to call the next wave ‘mobullying’? When are we going to recognize that the main issue is bullying and, rather than focus on the rapidly shifting technology, focus on the bullying itself? Like it or not, the technology is going to keep magnifying bullying in new and unexpected ways. Focusing on the technology will not make the bullying actually go away, although the more we push it underground, the less visible it is to adults. (For example, private profiles have made a lot of previously visible bullying now invisible.)
All this said, I’m not so convinced that bullying will go away. More depressingly, I think that it will continue to get worse. The more we as a society focus on hyper-individualism (and free speech above respect), the more we see youth believe that they have the right to torment anyone they wish. The less youth are socialized into adult society, the worse bullying gets. The less present parents are (jail, addiction, _workaholism_), the more bullying operates as a tactic for attention. The more we emphasize that mean-spirited attacks win air time on reality TV (and are the acceptable manner of judgment for American Idol), the more we set the standard for bullying. We’re living in a culture where bullying gets tacit validation in so many ways. We adults create child bullies through our actions – perhaps we need to think about the standards we set rather than the technology? I’m regularly horrified by my professional colleagues who are at work at 7PM even though they have young children at home who will be in bed by 9PM… those children are acting out for a reason and i think it’s hypocritical to talk about the problems with technology when we don’t talk about the problems with adult presence.
Personally, I think that energy should be placed into teaching youth to manage bullies and bullying (of all forms). I was lucky to figure some of this out on my own, although I will never forget the night that 20+ peers surrounded me and another girl at a football game to watch the fight that was brewing. She hit me twice; I just stood there. She screamed at me, called me all sorts of names. I just stood there. We were once close friends, but I knew where her anger came from. I was 14 and something in me told me that responding would only make things worse. That night was hell, but she never spoke to me again.
What are the tactics that we can teach kids to handle bullying? How can we help them process what’s going on? How can we help them strategize how to handle the bullies rather than run away? What would happen if we put our energies into helping those who are attacked lessen the impact of the blows? This is relevant to more than just kids. But mean kids grow up to be trolls and attackers and adult bullies.