November 9th, 2011
Social Media and Other Bully Pulpits: Pew’s “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites”
Bullying is a problem. Not just cyberbullying and not just bullying among teens; nor is bullying the unique provenance of any particular social, racial or gender demographic. At least, that’s what I’ve gleaned from “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites,” a report released today by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. The report that 88% of the surveyed teens said they had witnessed some kind of online bullying activity us certainly cause for alarm, but also of great concern is that 69% of adults using social media also reported seeing meanness and cruelty online. While 8% of the teens reported that they been bullied online, 13% of the social network-using adults in the survey reported that they themselves were the target of mean behavior within the last year. Cyberbullying: It’s not just for kids anymore.
Not that it ever was, which brings me to one of the most fascinating aspects of the report—the term ‘cyberbullying’ is used exactly once throughout the entire document. As noted by the study authors in the introduction, “Understanding bullying and what we call ‘social media meanness’ has gotten more complicated even since we began this project just under a year ago.” It certainly has. Amidst a tragic sea of teen suicides, ‘cyberbullying’ has become a hot term in the news media and among advocacy and policy groups, but as the conversation widens, the distinction between cyberbullying and bullying becomes pretty redundant. Is bullying on a social network any more or less hurtful than bullying on a playground? More importantly, why bother qualifying feelings of humiliation and pain? Using the ‘cyberbullying’ term implies a newness to the behavior, but the notion that new media somehow makes it slicker or more newsworthy is damaging. Just ask those 13% of harassed adults—bullying is a practice we have formed and tolerated, if not encouraged, for generations. The Internet may offer a new avenue for the cruelty, but so did the telephone, and I’ve (thankfully) never heard anyone refer to tele-bullying. Nor am I aware of any policy roundtables about crank calls, egged houses, rumors, flaming bags of poo on doorsteps, wedgies or swirlies, all of which are staples of the bully’s toolkit. The report’s choice not to use the ‘cyberbullying’ term, together with its inclusion of findings related to other forms of bullying, shifts focus to the issue of bullying altogether. This offers a more balanced–and, in my opinion, truer to life–snapshot of bullying in our society, which can hopefully lead to a more holistic approach to an evolving, complex issue.
Going through the rest of the report, I was relieved to read that parents are getting more involved in the digital lives of their children. 98% of parents with online teens have discussed what is and is not appropriate behavior online, and 87% of parents talk with their teens about what they do on the Internet. This suggests that more and more, parents and their children are adapting and growing together in a digital landscape, rather than becoming more isolated. Whether someone spends ten minutes or ten hours with the Internet on a daily basis, the presence of a perceived role model and confidante is integral to dealing with the experience of cruelty and meanness.
So, as before, bullying is a problem, for young people and for adults. Perhaps the Internet has made it easier to measure, by quantifiable counts of profiles taken down, photos posted, occurrences of fraud, YouTube fight videos, ‘likes’ and thumbs-down votes. I hope the study helps people realize that we can’t ask our kids to treat each other nicely online if we aren’t equally vigilant about how they treat each other offline. As anyone who has been bullied can attest, being told that “it gets better” is not so very helpful, and as the study shows, it’s not necessarily true. We have to demand, from ourselves and others, to be better.
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