Dear Media: Bullying is Never Just “Cyber”

The term “cyberbullying” is frequently used to describe hurtful behaviors occurring via communication technologies. But why distinguish “cyber” bullying from other forms of bullying? Perhaps it is partly because, when thinking of bullying, we tend to envision physical violence, something impossible to accomplish over the Web. Perhaps it is because the Web allows for new and vastly different forms of communication, necessitating new terminologies. Indeed, social media, mobile phones, and other recent technologies have created new ways for bullying to occur. For instance, the anonymity one has on Formspring has certainly contributed to a groundswell of hurtful behaviors on that site. Moreover, bullying can now occur at virtually any time and in any place (with Internet access).

However, as danah boyd has previously pointed out, the term “cyberbullying” is quite loaded because it tends to be used in a way that seems to diminish the significance of an act of bullying. Yet, bullying is bullying, whether it occurs in a school, park, bus, or on the Web. (A rough definition of bullying for our purposes here: the repeated use of hurtful behaviors, such as, but not limited to, insults, rumors, threats, intimidation, coercion, exclusion, physical violence, or vandalism.)

Cases of so-called cyberbullying have been quite dramatic. Some have even led the victims to commit suicide. In one high-profile case, an adult, pretending to be a young boy, used MySpace to woo and, ultimately, humiliate a teenage girl named Megan Meier. The woman’s daughter was friends with Megan. They all even lived on the same street. Megan and the daughter’s relation was strained by some misunderstandings prior to the incident. The women created the hoax as a way to retaliate on behalf of her daughter. After several weeks of building Megan’s trust and interest in the fabricated boy, the woman then switched gears and told Megan that “the world would be a better place” without her. Megan, then, hung herself.

More recently, a male Rutgers Student named Tyler Clementi was secretly videotaped by his roommate having a sexual encounter with another man. Tyler did not openly identify himself as gay or bisexual. The roommate then streamed the video over the Internet. Humiliated, Tyler subsequently killed himself after posting the following status to Facebook: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”

There has been much outcry over the dangers of these so-called “cyberbullying” behaviors. But the term obscures the reality: while the traces of bullying are highly visible online, these behaviors are generally reflections of similar behavior that is going on in the material world. Bullying might begin face-to-face, move onto the Facebook, then be picked up back up at school. The boundaries between the material and digital worlds are often quite blurred. Social behaviors, including harmful ones, are moving fluidly back and forth through atoms and bits. Semantically and conceptually separating “cyberbullying” from traditional forms of bullying obscures the fact that this is all the same behavior.

Yet, we cannot focus only on how the Web has been used to enact new ways to bully. It has also been used to create new spaces for social support. For example, in response to the many suicides resulting from the bullying of queer teenagers, Dan Savage and his husband launched the “It Gets Better” YouTube campaign that attempts to help these teens get through the bullying by imagining a better future. The campaign has been a huge success; even President Obama has posted a video.

Part of why Dan Savage created this YouTube project was because many queer teens, especially in rural areas, do not have access to other queer individuals that can act as support networks and role-models. Yet, virtually no one is calling this “cybersupport.” Indeed, it is simply support (however, that this term is unused also highlights a general bias against social media). Let’s not let the “cyber” prefix conceal the fact that (1) bullying often flows quickly across the digital and materials worlds and (2) the Web can be used to enact both harmful and helpful behaviors in new ways.

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