A few weeks ago, a debate was going around on the Digital Natives listserv about bullying and its echoes in the digital world. Among the participants were danah boyd, Miriam Simun, David Weinberger, Gene Koo, and Sam Jackson.

danah boyd kicked off the discussion with this definition of bullying used in a Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) report:

As noted by Olweus (2001), “a student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more students.” The preceding definition highlights the aggressive component of bullying as well as the associated inherent power imbalance and repetitive nature. There are a wide range of behaviors consistent with bullying, including physical, verbal, and relational manifestations.

But as it turned out, even agreeing on a definition of bullying was tricky. The same study states that 30% of youth in the United States report involvement in moderate or frequent bullying, a number that David Weinberger found shocking. The problem, he surmised, was that bullying is being defined too broadly. Do teasing, social exclusion, and bullying all belong in the same category? Or do they represent starkly different motivations and different levels of severity?

In cyberspace, these distinctions between these behaviors become increasingly blurred. While the word bully most likely conjures up the big, mean kid who beats others up on the playground, cyberbullying is obviously not physical. Relational bullying or relational aggression – essentially emotional bullying that involves exclusion, gossip, lying, etc. Think Mean Girls – is especially prevalent among, not surprisingly, girls. Sam Jackson cited a study that 71.4% of girls and 21.1% of boys who experienced bullying were victims of relational bullying (Henington, Hughes, Cavell, & Thompson, 1998). This is also the same kind of bullying that is made easier online. Add this to the miscommunication implicit in online interactions versus face-to-face ones and you have a problem that is at once unique to the Internet yet grounded in real life social interactions.

The danger of lumping together all different forms of social intimidation like teasing and social exclusion into the serious category of bullying is distorting the severity of the problem. The debate then turned to education about bullying in schools, which both danah and David see as having adopted a loose definition of bullying. There are merits to this, of course, such as stopping teasing before it escalates into something more severe, but it also problematizes policies regarding real bullying. Gene Koo was pointed out that we also need to teach victims to deal with bullying: “Most people only know how to fight back, not how to change the power dynamic.” Kids should be taught conflict resolution.

Not surprisingly, the discussion constantly focused circled back to real world bullying. The Internet introduces new elements to the problem, but many of the basic issues are the same.

Further Reading: Pew Cyberbullying Report

-Sarah Zhang

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