Cyberbullying: Are People Crying Virtual Wolf?

What with Charlie Sheen’s public breakdown losing media steam, Brittney Spears behaving well, and the “9/11 Mosque” controversy miraculously gone from the national consciousness (maybe because a. it wasn’t a mosque and b. it wasn’t at Ground Zero), the media needs something new to blow out of proportion.  I know! Cyberbullying!

I mean, they’ve already got a head start; you can’t throw a wimpy little kid without hitting a “news” piece about cyber bullying.  And I’m not denying that it’s a real issue.  I know all about the Boston area teen who killed herself after prolonged bullying – cyber and otherwise. (read this excellent piece about whether or not cyberbullying was at fault about this story here.)  I know about the college student who killed himself after having a sexual encounter webcasted by his roommate.  So before people start getting all hysterical on me: I know cyber bullying is real –  and is  real problem.

I just can’t help but wonder if it’s as big a problem as the massive, endless media coverage would have us believe. And I also wonder if all of the hype, all of the endless chatter, doesn’t add to the problem, rather than put a stop to it. I think that labeling every incident of unkind behavior between children bullying, dilutes the meaning of the word, and anesthetizes our children to real bullying – both online and off.  Is it the boy crying virtual wolf?

Recently, we had bullying expert Barbara Coloroso come to speak at our school.  She had a lot of good things to say about bullying – how to deal with bullies, how to teach kids the difference between tattling (saying something that’s only going to get someone into trouble) and Telling (saying something that’s going to get someone out of trouble.) She was funny, and dynamic, and filled with shocking facts and figures.  She also equated bullying with Nazism.  And that’s where she lost me. To me, that supposed parallel – between genocide and bullying – pretty much exemplified the problem: cyber bullying is serious, but it sure as hell isn’t as bad as genocide. But if you measured the seriousness of  cyber-bullying  by the sheer amount of media, community and educational attention it receives – compared to, for instance, what’s happening in The Ivory Coast or what went on in Rwanda – well, you’d think bullying was worse. Ridiculous.

Pushing, shoving, repeated taunts.  These are bullying behaviors. The systematic torture and murder of millions? That is not bullying, it is genocide.  There is a difference in scale.  And it matters.

Coloroso said, when I asked her to define bullying, that every single instance of unkindness between people is bullying. When I asked if there needed to be intent or any kind of continued pattern for unkindness to constitute bullying, she said no. “You only have to shove a kid’s head down the toilet once to be a bully.” she said.

Well, OK.  But what about the one time one girl tells another her shoes are dorky?  Or one boy tells another he smells?  Those aren’t nice behaviors – they’re mean – but to me, they’re not bullying behaviors because they happened once. Meanness, to me, does not equal bullying. Coloroso kept repeating something along these lines “Don’t tell me boys will be boys and girls will be mean, because it doesn’t have to be that way.”  Well, maybe it does.  Some childhood meanness is entirely developmentally appropriate. A child may do something mean unwittingly, because he or she is learning how to navigate socially. Children may be mean on purpose, too, but only because they are still figuring out how to behave at all, are testing the limits of what’s acceptable, or “trying on” a persona for a moment or two.  As long as parents, teachers and others in positions of authority address it and talk to the kids about it, explaining what is and isn’t acceptable, I don’t think the bully label is necessary or helpful. Kids can be mean, and they need to learn not to be, but to label every kid who does or says something mean a bully…well, there would be an awful lot of bullies around.  And an awful lot of those kids would never live down the label.

Are there real bullies?  Absolutely.  Are there real cyber bullies?  You bet.  But it does feel like the crisis of the moment.  I get it – back in the day, when a kid was called a name on the playground, it stayed on the playground.  Now, unkind words – and worse – will live on the internet forever.   There is – as I said before – a question of scale.  But ask anyone who was bullied as a child – did the feelings about it go away just because it’s not on the internet?  I can answer that. No.  I was bullied all through sixth grade by a boy who’d been held back so many times he towered over everyone. I still remember it vividly – internet or no.

Today, people are making a big deal about cyber bullying because it’s a socially acceptable way to attack technology as a whole.  Technology is the big bad unknown that our children are growing up with.  We don’t understand it, we don’t fully know it’s power, it’s new, it’s different.  And just like any prejudice – the bias against technology is born because people don’t like what they don’t understand.

I’m all for teaching kids to use the internet responsibly, for teaching them to be kind.  But I’m not all for attacking the technology that brings communities together, allows oppressed people to fight back, and puts a seemingly infinite amount of information out there for all. I want my kids to embrace technology – not to be afraid of it.  I want them to know how to protect themselves, to know how to behave online- but I don’t want the entirety of cyberspace to be demonized and labeled .

So stop picking on technology, everyone, or I’ll have to label you all bullies.

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