Cyberbullying

It could be argued that cyberbullying has enjoyed growth on an exponential level with that of its enabling agent, the Internet. Both have, in extraordinarily brief spans of time, commanded vast public interest, even as the increasing dominance of the Internet on daily living continues to permit further offenses of a bullying nature. In the adopting of modern communication technologies, it has become all too apparent that the worst of human behavior may be vastly enhanced, and even somewhat reinvented. Cyberbullying presents an unfortunate and complex scenario in which the enormous advantages of an expansive, virtual reality allow for variations of abject cruelty, frequently inflicted by young people equipped with the means and the destructive, or simply mindless, intentions.

The Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC) provides something of a vital resource in this era wherein Internet technology is exploited for harmful purposes. As interviews and podcasts from the site all too painfully convey, this modern variation on classic bullying brings with it, not only the damaging effects of traditional bullying, but additional consequences. That is to say, if psychological harm was always an aspect of “classic”, physical/verbal abuse, that component has taken on an enhanced impact merely by virtue of the sinister, “invisible” element of the cyber incarnation of it. In a wide assortment of interviews available on the CRC site, Dr. Justin Patchin, a founder of the Center, alludes to this greatly influential facet of the Internet experience. It is, in fact, linked to the privacy issues so prevalently an issue within the social networks; the better an individual may protect their actual identity, the greater, in a sense, the psychological damage made possible by cyberbullying, for a faceless and nameless assailant is inherently more frightening to a victim.

This factor of anonymity and invisibility also goes to a startling pattern noted by Dr. Patchin. In an interview on National Public Radio, he reports that those who cyberbully typically do not perceive of themselves as being agents of harm. They view their actions as humorous, or merely as a form of genial, verbal rough-housing, and it appears that this viewpoint is enabled by the size and population of the Internet itself. It is to these unaware “bullies” an open and anonymous public square, and attaching a hurtful comment to a social network page is to them nothing more than a passing gesture. More exactly, based on Patchin's observations, it seems that cyber bullies perceive their actions as innocuous largely by virtue of their being diluted in so vast an arena. Then, and not inconsequentially, they also allude to the anonymity as an attraction. It must be then considered, partially in defense of such people, that they believe themselves innocent of wrongdoing precisely because no name or face is attached to the insult or slight. That is to say, it is reasonable to assume that they feel no one can be greatly hurt by that which is presented anonymously.

In another interview – and it appears that Dr. Patchin is greatly in demand as the premier authority on cyberbullying – there is a focus on one of the elements rendering cyberbullying more pernicious than traditional, physical bullying: the audience. As Patchin notes, in the past, a bullying victim often only felt the ancillary shame and/or hurt of there being a witness or two to the cruelty. In the realm of the social networks, however, everyone can see. The victim's family, friends, and peers are all, suddenly, witnesses to the victimization, and this must have an immeasurable impact on a fragile, adolescent sense of self-esteem. Regrettably, bullies, cyber or otherwise, typically have a well-developed sense of who is most vulnerable to their assaults, and the innate vulnerability of their victims, then, is vastly exacerbated by this new and incalculably large audience to their suffering.

When speaking with WWIB host Mark Halvorsen, Patchin introduces another component to cyberbullying frequently ignored. The accessibility and range of the Internet is usually seen as the great, defining agent or enabler, but there is as well the issue of adolescent behavior by itself to consider. That is to say, ordinary teens are not equipped with the social filtering mechanisms of adulthood. They live very much in a world of immediacy, where thoughts and actions seem imperative to them. Plainly speaking, the average adolescent is not remarkable in exercising restraint. Consequently, these devices, at hand and at the ready to transmit virtually anything communicable at any time, have enormous potential to be employed in harmful ways, intentionally or not.

It is in several discussion regarding school policies, however, that the real dimensions of cyberbullying are glimpsed as the vastly complex dilemmas they are. Certain states, notably New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, have legislated cyberbullying statutes of varying force. There are laws being debated today which would make cyberbullying an offense to be reported directly to the police even, as is noted, there is no criminal definition of the activity. Then, schools are struggling with how to ethically and legally determine where the interests of the school may be compromised by Internet activity of students to the extent that the school is entitled to step in. As Patchin points out, there is some precedence here, as any behavior of students on school property which interferes with the institution's functions may be monitored and/or disciplined by the school.

The technology itself, however, and all that it enables, greatly diffuses such already vague parameters. Concerned parents, as well as wary school administrators, must face untold scenarios in which such school involvement is intrusive to the extent of violating civil liberties. For example, a school may be on guard to watch for signs of cyberbullying occurring on the premises. The activity, unfortunately, is not appreciably different in execution than the most genial texting, posting of notes, or email exchanges taking place in the hallways. Only by actually examining each Internet exchange, and/or tracking individual usage, can it be adequately determined that a certain person is practicing cyberbullying, and this must bring into question a school's rights to so invade privacy. Moreover, even the most stringent measures taken by a school cannot possibly encompass the bullying potentials available outside of the building. In other words, the discouraging reality is that, for cyberbullying, the victims are within a specific arena, but the means to strike at them are unrestricted.

The myriad aspects of cyberbullying addressed by Dr. Patchin in the assortment of interviews accessible at the CRC site are, without question, thought-provoking. To Patchin's great credit, he never discusses these issues in a way militant, inflexible, or assured of answers. He wisely acknowledges that the single issue of cyberbullying as it typically relates to young people in school is one which inherently brings into examination far-reaching concerns of privacy, anonymity, and Internet dependence. What is perhaps most interesting is that, in none of these discussions, neither Patchin nor his interviewer seriously entertains the suggestion of diminishing adolescent access to the Internet. There is no exhortation to parents to withhold the devices and deny their children Internet use, quite possibly because it is acknowledged that such ambitions would fail. The technology is too omnipresent and, ironically, the schools themselves rely upon it to expedite teaching, student research, and testing.

That reality accepted, there is still the further and unexplored avenue of specific controls as practiced by students. If it is unrealistic to expect an adolescent to stay away from social network sites, it seems more desirable, then, to encourage an empowerment of selectivity. Conspicuously absent in Patchin's otherwise sensible speculations is this approach, in which young people are exhorted to take full “ownership” of their own Internet presences. Blocking individuals is not especially effective in countering cyberbullying, simply because identities online are easily altered. However, by reinforcing to all students that the controls of the devices and pages are quite literally in their own hands, a necessary empowerment may be achieved. Most importantly, it seems that adolescents must be encouraged to fully comprehend that, if cyberbullying is rampant, so too is it confined to the online world, where the only real harm that may be done is suggestive, cowardly, and completely virtual.