For years we've talked about all the silly overreactions to things like the concept of "cyberbullying." In almost every case, it seems like it's just parents simply being incredibly overprotective concerning kids disagreeing with each other -- and the "solutions" they always seem to pose either seemed so off-base as to be ridicule-worthy, or so heavy-handed as to be worrisome for other reasons. As an example of the former, we had a post years back, about a self-described "cyberbullying expert" who claimed that kids would listen to her message about how cyberbullying was bad because she had some guy in a Spiderman costume
telling them about it. And, for the latter, we've got all the ridiculous attempts to criminalize being a jerk online
, such as in response to the whole Lori Drew
Danah Boyd, who actually studies social interactions online among young people, recently put up a fascinating post about how kids and adults seem to totally talk past each other on these issues, in large part, because kids don't think of these things as "bullying."
When I first started interviewing teenagers about bullying, they would dismiss my questions. "Bullying is so middle/elementary school," they'd say. "There's no bullying problem at my school," they'd say. And then, as our interview would continue, I'd hear about all sorts of interactions that sounded like bullying. I quickly realized that we were speaking different languages. They'd be talking about "starting drama" or "getting into fights" or "getting into my business" or "being mean." They didn't see rumors or gossip as bullying, regardless of whether or not it happened online. And girls didn't see fighting over boys or ostracizing one another because of boys as bullying. They didn't even see producing fight videos as bullying.
So then I started asking them what bullying was. What I learned was that bullying was when someone picked on someone or physically hurt someone who didn't deserve it. I'd ask how they knew if someone deserved it and the response was incredulous, "oh, you know." So I pushed harder... "what if you don't know?" I asked. I got blank stares so I took a different tactic. "What if someone's messing with someone and that other person thinks they're being mean?" This got their attention, but not in the way that I expected. Most told me that you know when someone is messing with you and that if you don't, you're stupid. Besides, when someone's messing with you, you can't take it seriously.
The real issue, Boyd suggests, is not that "bullying," is a problem. It's a lack of empathy. And, of course, that goes way
beyond kids. As she notes, "just ask any marital therapist who's trying to help a couple work through their relationship." From there, she points out that these interactions really aren't all that different from adult interactions:
When I look at how teens hurt each other, I can't help but also see how they're developing training wheels for future relationships and reflecting normative behaviors that they see around them. I hear teens' dramas reflected in their stories about how their parents fight -- with each other, with their friends and family and colleagues, and with them. What teens are doing is more coarse, more direct, and more explicit. But they're witnessing adult dramas all around them and what they tend to see isn't pretty. Parents talking smack about work colleagues or bosses. Parents fighting with each other or ostracizing their family members over disagreements.
Boyd isn't quite sure how to deal with this, but is right that this appears to be a much more productive way of looking at the "issue." In thinking about this, it seems like rather than trying to do the impossible and "stopping" people from acting like jerks, a potentially more effective way of dealing with this is trying (if at all possible) to use those kinds of interactions as learning experiences.
There's a great quote, apparently by Ian Percy that "we judge others by their behavior, while we judge ourselves by our intentions." It's really accurate, and highlights the difficulty of having empathy in such situations. People never think that they are in the wrong -- and since they can't readily understand or know the thought process and intentions of others, it often leads to them thinking the worst. If there were better ways to get people to at least recognize that others might also have good intentions, it could at least limit the negative impact of some interactions. Such fights and misunderstandings will never
go away. It's probably wishful thinking to even imagine they can be decreased even slightly. But calling them "cyberbullying" and outlawing jerky behavior or doing silly costumed song-and-dances isn't going to help matters at all.