On Bullying Part 1: Bullying vs. Cyberbullying

I want to talk a bit about bullying. When I went to school, if a group of kids attacked one kid, whether it was by physical or verbal assault, the victim would defend him or herself to the best of his or her ability and report the incident. The school administration would then do an investigation, and the perpetrators of the incident, or bullies, would be suspended or expelled from school. The same was true when one kid bullied another. When I went to school, the kid or kids who picked the fight – the bullies – were at fault, and whether the victim fought back or not, it was the bully who would be suspended.

If the video below had happened when I went to school, the bully would be the one to get suspended or expelled.

If the video below had happened when I went to school, the bully would get suspended or expelled, and the guy who came to the rescue (for being the first to actually physically attack) would have gotten a stern reprimand and a short suspension, but would be acknowledged by the school as a “good guy”.

But things are different now. In most school districts, specially those with zero tolerance laws, the bullies, the victims, and the bystanders with the camera would be suspended or expelled from the school, and some would possibly get arrested for violent assault.

While I understand the concern with bullying – I was often a victim of bullying myself, and now as a parent not a day goes by when I don’t wonder if someone at school is trying to bully my kid – the entire thing has been overblown to an unreasonable degree. While I agree that bullies should have some sort of punishment, it is only reasonable that the punishment fit the events transpired. More importantly, it is of utmost urgency that we recognize what is bullying and what is not.

It seems reasonable to me that should a bully be caught a first time he be given a short suspension, followed by a longer suspension the second time around, and expulsion the third. This, of course, would apply to verbal bullying or physical bullying with minor or no real consequences – events largely similar to the videos above.  It seems to me reasonable that should a group of kids beat up one kid, or individual in general, to the point where the victim passes out or needs surgery, as are the cases of Wes Jones and the Oklahoma student, then the bullies should face harsher consequences. It also seems appropriate to me that should bullying lead to death, as appears to be the case of Joel from East Harlem, there should be even harsher consequences.

What doesn’t seem rational to me is that many little things are now considered “bullying” (my son seems to be under the impression that someone cutting in line in front of him is bullying – I have spoken to teachers and administrators who think as much.) Ronit Baras over at the Family Matters Parenting blog correctly defines bullying as “a recurrent and deliberate abuse of power”. This definition may be a bit broad indeed, but it is a good starting point. Ronit also correctly identifies what is not bullying. Ronit writes that not liking someone, being excluded, accidentally bumping into someone, making other kids play a certain way, isolated acts of telling crude jokes about someone, arguments, expressions of unpleasant thoughts or feelings about others, or ISOLATED cases of harassment, aggressive behavior, or meanness are NOT the same as bullying. Ronit, I think, is correct. These are things different from bullying, and should be dealt with (or ignored) depending on the situation. What also doesn’t seem rational to me is the type of overreaction we see in cases such as that of the Stanford bully. In this case there was bullying, yes, and a complaint was made. The victim was not injured. She was screamed at and pushed. The way to deal with this is to suspend or expel the bully and give him or her a permanent mark on the academic record visible only to school administrators- not to damage the kid for life , but to let the administration know that an event has already taken place and the bully should receive some help. The right step is most certainly NOT to arrest the bully, at least not in cases like these. Yet that is what seems to be the trend.

The issue becomes more complicated when we consider the new phenomena that has come to be known as “cyberbullying”.

Cyberbullying is defined as actions that use information and communication technologies (social media, phone messages, and e-mail, for example) to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior by an individual or group with the intent to harm others. Some examples of cyberbullying include the use of these technologies for intimidation, control, manipulation, or humiliation of an individual.

Certainly, I agree that if someone, for example, opens up a webpage called, for example, “JohnSucksDotCom”, and the focus of that webpage is for a group of people who hate “John” to write negative things about John and post pictures about “John” falling down and pictures of “John” getting Fs on exams and photoshops of “John”‘s face on a woman’s body, then yes, we can call that cyberbullying. I think that we deal with those cases depending on what happens. If John sees the page and reports it, you suspend the page creators from school an order them to take down the site. If John is repeatedly sent links to the page and the consequences are seen in real life, then we should be able to argue for harsher punishments.

But here’s the thing about bullying in general – when a victim is being bullied, one should consider the ability or inability of escape. If a bully approaches someone in a hostile manner and throws a racial or gender based slur at the would be victim, the victim walks away, and the bully goes on to do something else (probably play with his 3DS)- that doesn’t seem to me as a particularly severe case of bullying. In fact, it hardly seems like bullying at all. Certainly some intervention is warranted – warn the bully (although this is closer to stalking or harassment if you ask me) to stop the threats at the risk of suspension. If the bully does follow the victim around yelling slurs, and maybe even pushing the victim, then that can be taken as a more serious case of bullying.

The same principle, I think, should be applied to “cyberbullying” (although I am hesitant to call it “cyberbullying – I think cyberstalking or cyberharrassment are terms that are more fitting). Yes, it can be argued that spreading embarrassing pictures of someone through social media can be  considered as a form of cyberbullying and dealt with accordingly. In this case for example, the bully actively distributed the video and encouraged the use of gender based slurs against the victim, which led to his suicide. Yes, the recording of the video is an isolated incident, but the active and consistent distribution of the video can be interpreted as a type of bullying that stems from the original trespass. Why do I think that this could be seen as bullying (although I stand by my statement that this is closer to cyberharassment)? Because the victim had no choice in the matter. He could not just simply “shut off” video distribution and delete all previously distributed copies. Had this been, for example, a case where the bully would have spammed the victim’s facebook account, for example, with obscene messages, the victim could simply block the facebook bully. But still, there seems to be a problem where kids are committing suicide because of social network messages.

The very tragic cases of Hannah Smith and Sarah Lynn Butler come to mind. Both of these victims were harassed online through social networks (one article calls it “online teasing”) and committed suicide. It seems to me that this could have been prevented had the victims simply blocked the “trolls”. And yet, it seems as if the solution proposed by the media is to say “this is bullying” and call it a day. Perhaps it is because I grew up in a different time period, but it seems to me that if the victim can simply make the “bullying” stop with the click of a button, it’s not bullying as much as it is some other form of virtual assault (perhaps cyber harassment would be a better term). I have been virtually insulted in various stages of my life – and I have no doubt that because of this section of the post I will receive a few insults as well from the “if you disagree with me you are a cyberbully” crowd. Every single time, I have blocked these individuals and moved on. I have been called (when younger) a “fatass spic”, a “good for nothing wetback”, and a “lazy n!@@3r”, to name a few things. I have been asked to “do the world a favor and kill myself”. I have been asked to “go fuck my whore of a mother” (this last one by someone I thought was my friend). And every single time I have solved the problem by deleting and blocking these contacts from my list. Even recently, during my adult life, someone who I thought was a dear friend called me “a fraud and a farce” repeatedly because I told her that I was working on a certain project. After three days I decided that I had enough, that the memory of the friendship wasn’t worth the grief, and blocked her. This is what we must teach teenagers who have social media accounts to do. We must teach them that there is an easy way out from this type of “cyberbullying”, and that this is the “block” button. The solution to these very real and very tragic cases is not to label the cases as “cyberbullying” in order to cause fear, but to teach kids about social networks and about some of the more negative people that sometimes inhabit them. This, I think, will lead to better decisions and to more stable minds.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on October 25, 2013, in Education Commentary and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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