Cyberbullying

As many as one in five middle school students have been victimized by this practice. At one time a child’s home was considered a refuge from school, peers, and bullies, but technology has rendered that nugatory; most cyberbullying occurs at home, perhaps even in the victim’s bedroom, previously thought to be a safe haven. However, although primarily thought of as a form of cruelty limited to teenagers and adolescents, cyberbullying is also found outside the juvenile milieu, such as in the workplace and in social networks frequented by adults. In addition, so-called cyber vigilantism—using social networks to focus community disapprobation on various forms of supposed transgression—certainly can cross the line from engaged activism when it becomes excessive, and it can seem like bullying to the target of the subsequent Internet-based and public humiliation. Although a noted and pervasive problem in North America, cyberbullying appears anywhere technology has become computer oriented and where cell phones that employ texting and computer technology are in use.

Reasons for and Manifestations of Cyberbullying

Among younger people, cyberbullying, like normal bullying, may seemingly begin as good-natured jocular teasing among peers, but the victim might not perceive it as such. Some cyberbullies, like more mundane bullies, claim that raillery helps make the victims “stronger,” insinuating that the behavior is for the healthy development of the victim. The most obvious reason for bullying of any degree is to degrade the victim and/or in some way to raise the status or improve the state of mind of the bully. Contrary to popular belief, bullies are often popular and self-satisfied; they are seldom victims of an inadequate sense of self or overtly pathologically damaged victims of an inferiority complex. They may in fact gain status among their peers for inflicting physical and/or psychological harm on their victim. Not surprisingly, research reveals that cyberbullies show little or no empathy toward their targets. In addition, research suggests that cyberbullies are likely to receive nonnurturing parenting and are themselves somewhat more likely to be the recipients of severe and physical discipline.

Manifestations of cyberbullying take many forms: Some use Facebook and other social networking sites to deliver withering assaults on an adolescent’s emerging sense of self and fragile self-esteem. Taunts may focus on sexuality and are frequently homophobic or fixed on beauty and physical development. Sometimes victims are alleged to be promiscuous or afflicted with a sexually transmitted disease. A child’s family’s income level may be mocked, as well as the clothes the child wears if they are not viewed as fashionable among the child’s peers. Female cyberbullies may play sadistic games with other girls, making them the target of horrendous abuse and elaborately exclusionary scenarios. Thus, a girl may find herself ostracized in the lunchroom for no apparent reason. Frequently, these incidents are the result of disputes over the affections of a boy. Boys may “sext” (i.e., send revealing photos of a trusting female who has unwisely shown more of her body than was seemly) to their buddies. After a couple ends a relationship, acrimoniously revealing photos of the female party may begin to circulate. This sort of “revenge porn” may be especially damaging. These photos may be passed around the school and make their way into general circulation. That this practice may run afoul of child pornography laws is a definite possibility as well. Locker room photos of an obese boy similarly being circulated in his school occasion humiliation and self-destructive behavior.

Dealing With Adolescent Cyberbullying

School officials have been confounded by the issues raised by cyberbullying. For example, is it constitutionally protected free speech or merely crude intimidation? Perhaps more appositely, is conduct that occurs entirely off school grounds and in the discretionary time of the students involved actionable by school officials at all? In general, when student behavior interferes with the school’s educational mission, it may be actionable, according to some court decisions. But state laws and court decisions mandating school action for off-campus behavior are inconsistent and of dubious constitutionality and fairness.

School officials have to contend with the fallout from “cyber reality” daily. Dealing with the very real consequences of nonstop, over-the-weekend texting and social network cyberbullying on Mondays has become a part of guidance counselors’ and principals’ workload. Working through the web of messages and figuring out just what has occurred and who is involved may take many hours away from more directly educational tasks. However, contending with dropouts and students with falling attendance and grades, and breaking up fights in classrooms, lunchrooms, and on buses that stem from cyberbullying are a consequence of neglecting these issues. Thus, dealing with devastated children whose identities have been disvalued and with angry and bewildered parents in this connection has become the new normal for educators. Whereas some parents want principals to act decisively, others want school officials to stay out of their family affairs altogether and are uncooperative. Many students feel that school authorities cannot or will not help them, and they are afraid to inform their parents. This is because parents may act to precipitously limit access to technology and cut the student off from all cybercontact with peers. School officials generally want parents to know that it is the parents’ responsibility to monitor and regulate their children’s Internet and social networking access and behavior. Because many parents seem unwilling and unable to do so, the problem seems addressable only through school-based educational sensitivity-raising activities. How much impact such programs might have is still up for debate.

There are numerous websites on the Internet that address these issues, and they can be easily found by any search engine. They generally suggest that any and all cyberbullying should be reported to the police when threats of violence or stalking are involved. Any depiction of minors involved in sexual behavior should be reported, as should sexually explicit writings concerning minors. Other situations such as photos taken in circumstances where one should reasonably expect privacy (e.g., “upskirt” photos or pictures from dressing rooms, locker rooms, toilet facilities, and showers) should be documented and reported.

Workplace cyberbullying and adult cyberbullying should be dealt with similarly. All examples should be saved and carefully documented. In large organizations, instances of cyberbullying should be reported to the human resources (personnel) department or to an uninvolved superior. Private citizens who are bullied outside the workplace should block the source with software, if possible, and report threats to the authorities. The abuse should also be reported to the cell phone company, and/or social networks sites should be contacted. A private attorney should be engaged if law enforcement seems unable or unwilling to deal with the problem. It should be noted, however, that it is difficult for civil juries to assess damages in such cases even when clear culpability has been established.

Francis Frederick Hawley

See also Facebook ; Free Speech

Further Readings

Agatston, P., et al. “Students’ Perspectives on Cyber Bullying.” Journal of Adolescent Health, v.41/6 (2007).

Bhat, Christine Suniti. “Cyber Bullying: Overview and Strategies for School Counsellors, Guidance Officers, and All School Personnel.” Australian Journal of Guidance and Counseling, v.18/1 (2008).

Dilmac, Bulent. “Psychological Needs as a Predictor of Cyber Bullying: A Preliminary Report on College Students.” Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice, v.9/3 (2009).

Mason, Kimberly. “Cyberbullying: A Preliminary Assessment for School Personnel.” Psychology in the Schools, v.45/4 (2008).

Patchin, Justin. “Advice for Adult Victims of Cyberbullying” (November 9, 2015). http://cyberbullying.us/advice-for-adult-victims-of-cyberbullying (Accessed September 2014).