Understanding cyberbullying from the inside out

We can’t realistically set household or school policy around cyberbullying without the perspective of those most affected by it, so here are some insights….

By Anne Collier

If you really want to understand cyberbullying, take advantage of a perspective that’s essential to the discussion. View it from the inside-out – from teens’ perspective, rather than that of adults on the outside looking in. “Friending” our kids online can help fill in the picture a bit, but talking with our own children and checking in on the work of researchers who talk with lots of other young people offers a much clearer, more complete picture – whether you’re setting household or school policy. [Using technology to monitor their social-media activity only offers out-of-context freeze frames of the fluid dynamics of school life and adolescent relationships.]

One such researcher is danah boyd, who recently zoomed in on the role of attention-seeking in cyberbullying. Think about how people value each other’s attention. Sure, some people more than others, but it has some value to most of us. Then think about how little children get approval and reality checks from their parents with “Mom, watch me!” or “Dad, look at this!” As they grow, the attention-seeking gradually shifts more to peers. This has always been part of the bedrock of school social drama, right?

‘No such thing as bad attention’

“Here’s where we run into a major component of bullying,” writes boyd, who, in doing her qualitative research, frequently travels to communities around the US and talks in-depth with teens about their use of social technologies. “In a world of brands and marketing, there’s a sentiment that there is no such thing as bad attention. Countless teens are desperately seeking attention. And there’s nothing like ‘starting drama’ to guarantee both attention and entertainment. So teens jump in, adding fuel to the flame because it’s fun. They know that it hurts, but it also feels good sometimes too. And this is what makes music videos like Eminem & Rihanna’s ‘Love the Way You Lie’ resonate with both adults and teens. The drama is half the fun, even when it hurts like hell.”

So those are some of the conditions leading to what we call “cyberbullying.” Teens certainly hear us using the term more and more, and so they’ll tell you that it’s bad because that’s the way we present it to them, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot to them. They have a really hard time identifying just the negative parts of the chaotic, complex, shape-shifting genie of school life and stuffing that into adults’ neat little bottle labeled “Cyberbullying.” If that whole amorphous genie were completely bad it might be a little easier, but not much. Plus, relationships also have histories or backgrounds, so history is part of the social-drama genie too, and – when identifying what went wrong between two people or with a group – we often have to ask the individuals to add in history to deconstruct and get to the bottom of what’s behind a particular incident.

As boyd puts it, “combating bullying is not going to be easy, but it’s definitely not going to happen if we don’t dive deep in the mess that underpins it and surrounds it. Lectures by uncool old people like me aren’t going to make teens who are engaged in dramas think twice about what they’re doing….” Because, depending on the day, the kid, the context, the backstory, etc., the drama is fun, painful, empowering, cruel, humorous, exhausting, entertaining, a joke, a crime, no big deal, etc.

The battle for attention is offline and online

So do we address just “cyberbullying,” or do we – adults and young people – address how we function in community (family, school, work, online communities), deal with drama or politics, treat others, and present ourselves? As for social aggression, boyd writes, “we need [education and] interventions that focus on building empathy, identifying escalation [of drama or bad feeling, whether malicious or mistaken, pranks or retaliation, I’d add], and techniques for stopping the cycles of abuse. We need to create environments [home and school] where young people don’t get validated for negative attention and where they don’t see relationship drama as part of normal adult life. The issues here are systemic,” boyd says. “And it’s great that the Internet is forcing us to think about them, but the Internet is not the problem, here. It’s just one tool in an ongoing battle for attention, validation, and status. And unless we find effective ways of getting to the root of the problem, the Internet will just continue to be used to reinforce what is pervasive” offline.

So let’s be clear that cyberbullying didn’t come from out of nowhere, is not new, is something the school counselors and risk-prevention practitioners among us do understand (see this), and is only an “epidemic,” as we hear in the news, if adolescence (or adulthood) is. I wholeheartedly second what boyd’s saying, that we need to take the focus off the tech and put it on the social and environmental conditions that give rise to social cruelty offline as well as online. To defeat cyberbullying, we need to create home and school cultures that encourage critical thinking about the right and wrong kinds of attention-, validation-, and status-seeking; teach perspective-taking; and cultivate self-worth, resilience, and a sense of belonging.

Related links

* This is great news: New research showing that, when emotionally hurt by bullying, kids are speaking up more, Reuters reports. Here’s the analysisitself from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire (Reuters’s source).
* 5 myths about bullying, by psychology professor Susan Swearing at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln
* 4 tips for parents on how to work with a school on a bullying case from school administrator Brian Gatens
* A guide for schools seeking effective anti-bullying programs from the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness & Prevention
* UK study covered in the Daily Mail seems to bear out the target-aggressor-switching, online-offline fluidity I write about above.
* About “cyberbullying” as spikes of mean or cruel behavior in the ongoing social drama (aka the ebb and flow of relationships and social groups) at school, expressed digitally – not an isolated, online-only series of cruel actions or the online result of social aggression at school).
* Even the classic definition of “cyberbullying” – repeated aggression, related to “real life,” power imbalance (sub in “status” for “power”), electronic means – grounds it in real-life peer relations, which in young people’s lives revolve around school, a continuous experience for them (classic definition here).
* Far from being an epidemic, bullying has actually “declined substantially,” according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center (see this).
* “Parenting & the digital drama overload”

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