Saturday, March 2, 2013

Cyber Bullying: Beyond the Edges of the Computer Screen

I mentioned cyber bullying briefly in my last post on teen dating violence. Coincidentally, I have seen a number of articles on bullying since then, so I want to add my thoughts with a bit more depth to the bullying conversation.

One of the particularly challenging aspects of bullying today is cyber-bullying, in part because it was not even around when many of the parents of today attended school. For the sake of this discussion, I will more broadly define cyber bullying as harassment or humiliation involving the use of modern technologies, such as cell phones (including text messages, photos, or phone calls) or computers (including email, websites, or social media).

In particular, I want to address one of the main themes I have seen in the comments after the bullying articles I have read lately. Many adults have responded to this outcry against bullying with comments about America "going soft." These posters say things like, "students need to hit bullies back," and simply "shut off the computer." One poster, who called himself or herself "Pork Earmarks" went so far as to respond to someone's personal testimony about cyber bullying by saying, "You can't be cyberbullied. Period." This skeptical individual continued to explain that comments made on facebook are not worth anything, because they are not verbal and may not even be sent directly to the individual being insulted; therefore, in this person's opinion, they are not part of "real life."

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There are so many things that immediately jump out at me when I read comments like this. Here are a few:
  • The first is that I believe responses like this one are most likely to be made by those who did not grow up with the pervasive influence of technology in their childhoods and who do not understand how far-reaching its effects can be. A lot has changed in the last twenty years. The online world becomes increasingly intertwined with "the real world" with every day that passes. As you may know from previous posts, I do advocate for keeping oneself away from sites that trigger negativity (and I practice this personally). But when it comes to bullying, many individuals, both child and adult, who have experienced cyber-harassment will know that simply turning off the machine will not fix everything. This can be true even if the bully is a complete stranger and may be even more true if the cyber bully is a person also known personally outside of the cyber experience.
  • Secondly, comments like the one above perpetuate the myth that verbal and emotional abuse are not truly hurtful. This person erroneously assumes that because someone is not being physically assaulted, there is no damage done. Remarks made in writing or online, as well as those delivered in person, can cut to the heart emotionally, elicit genuine fear in the victim, and leave a lasting psychological imprint. Get with the times and acknowledge that verbal abuse is real abuse.
  • Thirdly, for those who advocate physical retaliation against bullies, even though I am not a proponent of violence, I am not going to say that there is categorically no instance where that can work. But at the very least, I can name many situations where it is not effective. First of all, if the identity of the online harasser is unknown, there is no one to attack. Furthermore, bullies often prey on those who they perceive as weaker and therefore unable to fight back (or they may work in packs). Additionally, even if further cyber activity is halted by punching a bully in the school hallways, the genius of the internet is that once something is put out there, it usually cannot be taken back. If an embarrassing photo is circulating the internet, for example, even if the original photo is taken down, copies of that image can continue multiplying through cyberspace and are nearly impossible to track and remove. Once the damage is done, it can continue indefinitely. Furthermore, as stated in point two, physically assaulting a bully to prevent future attacks does not remove the ongoing psychological effects of past verbal abuse or rumors circulating the school.
  • Additionally, the social experiences of children and teens are extremely important and formative, and young brains are simply not wired to handle pressures the same way as adult brains. Asking a twelve year old to respond to bullying as if their sense of self was as developed as that of a forty-two year old simply does not make sense or align with the real experiences of that child.
  • Beyond that, even adults handle social challenges in a variety of ways, depending on personality and life experience. I know that I personally would love to shrug off every naysayer I meet, and I have worked hard to develop a thicker skin over the years, but even so, I have had tremendously damaging and emotional interactions with people who took hurtful comments too far (both in person and through email). In general, I think that suggesting every single person should be able to "ignore" harassment in the same way one person does shows a profound lack of empathy for those who experience the world differently than the individual prescribing this course of action.
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Even as an adult, I notice that I encounter negative and what I would call "bullying" remarks in the comment threads of reputable news organizations on a near daily basis. This tells me that bullying behavior is a pervasive part of our online culture. Luckily, I have a more mature hold on my feelings and greater security in my relationships than I did when I was 14, and perhaps more importantly, I don't have to go to school the next day with the posters of these insulting remarks. But especially for children and teens who have to face their online tormentors in person, the bullying doesn't stop at the edge of the computer screen.

I remember in high school (ten+ years ago), one of my best friends received an email containing song lyrics from another girl, with really mean words and phrases highlighted in bold. Sure, my friend was able to delete the email, but those words were etched in her mind, and she still had to see the sender every day in class and on her sports team. I also dated an extremely nice guy who was called a "fag" on internet message boards by "popular" people he barely knew. Of course, he was confident that his friends all loved him, and he generally did not have to hang out with the jerks around school, but it was still emotionally hurtful and personally shocking to know that those messages were being broadcast about him. I myself was the subject of speculation about my sexual experiences as a freshman in high school, because, as one person put it, "What else would you be doing when you go to someone's house after school?" I was also criticized behind my back for being open about my Christian faith throughout high school. Sure, those things didn't change the reality of who I was or what I did, but they still hurt. And truth be told, my twelve year old self probably made some comments through AOL instant messenger that were more hurtful than I ever would have said in person.

As prevalent as these behaviors were when the internet was just gaining popularity in my teen years, unfortunately, these types of experiences are becoming even more common today. My family got our first home computer when I was in middle school; flip phones were the new cool thing to get when I started driving as a teenager (yep, my first cell phone at 16); and facebook only came out during my senior year of high school and required a college email address to join at that time. Students today have smart phones, internet access, social media profiles, etc. available to them nearly all the time and from a very young age. Even if your child doesn't have those things, chances are, a number of their peers do. The below chart of teen technology usage is based on a 2010 study of over 4000 teenagers in the southern United States. A 2011 Pew Research study showed that 95% of teenagers use the internet and a full 80% of those online participated in social media sites. These numbers continue to rise rapidly, as has the switch in the last two years from standard cell phones to smart phones, which provide 24/7 internet access (with more than half of cell phones in the U.S. being smart phones as of May 2012). All that is to say, these 2010 numbers are a good guide post and show the prevalent use of technology among teens, but keep in mind that almost all of the below values are undoubtedly markedly higher today in 2013.

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In many of the articles I have seen this week, students tell stories of other students creating fake profile pages on social media sites, where they use the pages to spread lies or make malicious comments. This is a completely new form of bullying that very few parents today would have experienced. In these instances, the victim does not even have to be involved with an online presence at all, yet rumors and negativity can follow the student to school in ways beyond their control. Telling the victim of this type of bullying to simply "keep away from the computer" is like telling your child to just "cover their ears" when a bully is insulting them in person. Sure, the sound will be a lot quieter, but it doesn't change the child's internal knowledge that someone is hurling insults his or her way and that other peers are well aware of what is being said.

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As you can see from the above charts, studies differ on the exact frequency of cyber bullying experiences. Yet all paint the picture that cyber bullying is all too common. The growth of cyber bullying has added many new layers to the childhood social experience, enabling attackers to spread gossip, inappropriate pictures, and threats to a much wider audience than in past. Cyber bullying can also help attackers maintain a level of anonymity not previously available, and even when not anonymous, technology can provide a certain "distance" from the comments being made (since the bully doesn't have to directly confront the victim to his or her face.) The psychological scars of cyber harassment are just as real as those that come from being slammed against a locker, and I am truly alarmed by the lack of understanding around the effects of verbal/emotional abuse in our culture.

Let's start a conversation about bullying where we come to the table acknowledging that our childhood experiences were different than those of children today. Let's listen and show empathy for the experiences of those who have been victimized and those who have bullied others (often the same children). Then we may have a real chance at understanding what cyber bullying is doing in our schools today.

For more information on teen internet usage, check out the Pew Research Center. For more information on cyber bullying, visit the websites of the Cyber Bullying Research Center or STOP Cyberbullying.

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