Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Cyberbullying?" Or Regular Bullying That Happens to Take Place Online, Sometimes?

It's difficult to believe that it can happen. That the solipsism of human beings, even young ones, can be so innately air-tight that another's existence is treated about as animate as a skipping stone. But it can, and people do.

Last month, 15-year-old South Hadley High School student Phoebe Prince killed herself after her peers tormented her online and in person. South Hadley, with a quaint, old downtown area and the prestigious Mount Holyoke College, is practically in my backyard. Its interesting how striking physical proximity still feels in a world freeing itself from the boundaries of space and time with computers and cell phones.

Ever since Lori Drew and her daughter posed as a 16-year-old boy and eventually prompted the suicide of 14-year-old Megan Meier, cyberbullying has endured warranted mainstream scrutiny. Yet this scrutiny seems to exist in a vacuum of our pre-Internet history and tends to overemphasize the "cyber" part as some new paradigm in child relations as if bullying has never had victims before.

I don't see cyberbulling as a new problem. Rather, it is an old problem with a new face, one with enhanced persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisibility. These qualities may very well bring entirely new social implications, but they are still merely side-effects of a much deeper, more resilient problem. Victims of cyberbullying are not committing suicide because they are being bullied on the internet, they are doing so because they are being bullied.

The Internet is a hugely empowering tool. Its writable nature gives users a collectively powerful voice in the media sphere. Each contribution supports all other contributions which are filtered through social interactions. The problem is, it empowers everyone, not just those who we agree with. While blogs and re-tweets contribute to a fairly robust networked public sphere, Al Qaeda and pro-ana groups are just as robustly connected. The lack of discrimination about information packets traveling through the Web make it what it is today, and because of this, we must figure out how to navigate Web culture rather than chalk it up as a social liability.

In fact, young students' ability to transfer their behavior from physical space to online space is normal, probably even desirable. A keen ability to exploit computers and the Internet is a crucial skill in the networked world. However, this means that all behaviors are apt to become digitized, including-- you guessed it-- bullying.

I'm not a child psychologist, and I won't pretend to be an expert on cyberbullying. Yet in my experiences as a digital native just bridging the gap between networked youth to networked adulthood has given me a few hypotheses that should be considered and explored further.

First, educators and parents are not meeting children in these shared spaces. Students do not typically see adults using or participating in Web communities. As a result, children feel that they are hidden from view in cyberspace, free to perceive digital social spaces as their own, spaces where repercussions for poor behavior are invisible to those who care. Think about it: where does most teasing happen in the playground? Around the corner, underneath the jungle gym, behind the slide...far away places where they think no one can see them. Because of the disconnect between young, digital natives living their lives online and digital immigrants who don't, the Internet has become the farthest possible place for students to act however they want.

Second, the typical response to cyberbullying (or sometimes even a preemptive measure) is to simply take these tools away. This doesn't solve anything. Students are smart and the Internet is vast. Block Livejournal, and kids will find Blogger, Wordpress, or Drupal. Take away Facebook, and there's Twitter, Wave, and a myriad of free email clients. Censor YouTube, and watch students go to town on Vimeo, Flickr, Google Video and others. Keep trying to block all of these, and we will put educators at a huge disadvantage for teaching students to be effective human agents in the networked world. Internet blockage will not change the behaviors of students-- they will always find ways to do what they want in digital spaces whether we "let them" or not. (Just look at all of China, for example!)

So what can we do about it?
  • Enter their digital spaces. Use social media in class. Explain participation in the networked public sphere and why it's important. Create discussions about online identity and what that means. In short, adults need to show students that they are aware of online spaces in a way that makes interactions vulnerable to scrutiny. This will crack the delusion that online spaces exist only "for them." (I'm actually hoping that Glitch, a new social, online game created by the Flickr developers, may be an interesting avenue for adult-student collaboration in an online game space, although I don't know too much about it, yet).
  • Explicitly teach in the context of the mediated world. How do students learn how they "should" act in different social situations and domains? Talk about personal identity in terms of cinema, television and music that make violence look cool and learning look lame. Why was that Super Bowl Doritos commercial with the smacking kid so funny? (Who made it? Why? What the heck does it have to do with Doritos? Perhaps it has more to do with masculinity...What is "masculinity?" Do you see where I'm going with this??) What does "being a teen in America" mean to you? Why do we have the conceptions we do about being a teen in America? Giving students the language to explore these expectation failures early on might push them to consume media in more critical ways.
  • Attack bullying at its roots. Unfortunately, I don't really have an answer for this. Be more aware about students' social relations? Confront students about bullyng as an entry point to a more philosophical discussion about ethics and the concept of "self?" No matter what,"bullying" should be addressed as a deeply human problem, not a technological one.
Or maybe these are just delusional and idealistic. Can students really talk about their online identities and mediated experience of the world at the age when cyberbullying is usually a problem? What about learning other, more traditional subjects that are required for passing standardized tests? Can educators cut a chunk out of the "traditional" curriculum to more adequately confront these issues?

I certainly think so if we hope for a less globally antagonistic future. But maybe that's just delusional and idealistic...

1 comment:

  1. Hey, so I know it's been a few months since you wrote this, but I just found this on Salon and it seemed pertinent: