In 2005, I ran a national conference in Montreal on the topic of “Cyber-bullying”. We had excellent guest speakers, a panel of experts, and a parade of educators and parents speaking about the problem and how it was being addressed. It was an emergent problem, and we were going to face it head- on. Seven and a half years later, we are no closer to getting a handle on cyber bullying. In fact, it has become a far more sophisticated and ingrained practice than it was then.
What are the key characteristics of cyber bullying? Basically it is the use of electronic communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated and hostile behavior by an individual or group that is intended to harm others. Unlike traditional bullying, victims don’t ever feel safe because they can be bullied in their cars, their homes and even in their own bedrooms. Early cyber bullying centered around texting and emails. Unlike the passing of notes in class by my generation, an email or text can reach a wide-ranging audience and the victim might not even realized that she or he is being maligned or gossiped about until the rumour is repeated so often and shared by so many people that it becomes “fact” and it becomes impossible to dislodge. For years, probably some of the most outlandish abuse of electronic communication was to be found in personal email. In the public education system in North America, fewer than 5% of teachers and administrators communicate with parents by email (this compares with 95% of independent school educators). The reason is simple. Any exchange by email is open to misinterpretation and abuse. Both teachers and parents can be guilty of sharing comments and insights that were meant to be kept confidential. Words that might be spoken in haste, and retracted later, are preserved, white hot, in the body of an email. To be clear, it is not necessarily bullying behavior to lose your temper in an email exchange, however, if one party decides to selectively use the other’s comments out of context to slander or belittle them with a wider audience, you have the makings of a cyber disaster.
So why has cyber bullying become so insidious and pervasive in the second decade of the twenty-first century? One of the main reasons has been the rapid and generally uncontrolled spread of social media networks like Facebook and Twitter. A quick, vicious posting or tweet can go viral among friends, acquaintances and eventually total strangers with little or no hope of ever undoing the damage. And, although the media consistently shocks us with stories of young people getting caught in this cyber web, the ugly truth is hardly ever mentioned that, in fact, the main perpetrators are not children, but rather their adult role models.
Many adults have become masters at cyber bullying (although they might not perceive it as such). They use selective sharing of emails and the unbridled use of social media sites in order to cement their views of the world, and of particular individuals in the collective minds of their “friends”. I have a Facebook “friend” who likes to not so subtly brag about her social calendar. If she is invited out with a friend or to a relatively exclusive party—she very deliberately makes all of the arrangements on her “wall” rather than by personal email. What should be a one to one correspondence (what time do you want to meet? what can I bring? what are you wearing?) becomes a public proclamation of her perceived popularity and enviable social life. If the event is more impromptu with no opportunity for pre-publicity, then you can be sure that we will all hear about it the next day. (“Hey Heidi, didn’t we have a great time last night! etc.) It’s remarkably immature, and mildly entertaining from thousands of kilometers away, but you can be sure that there are specific individuals left out of her self-proclaimed in-group that are being specifically targeted and quietly bullied. And while it says more about the fragile self-esteem of the bully than about anything else, that doesn’t make it any easier on the intended victims.
I found it ironic to hear this week that Parliament intends to debate the issue of bullying. There is probably no other forum in the country today that is so rife with bullying and harassing behaviour. Many of our elected representatives engage in petty name calling, and over the top hyperbole such as accusing people of “siding with the pornographers” if they oppose online surveillance, or “soft on crime” if they are against mandatory sentencing. Over the past decade we have had two political leaders have their careers destroyed by electronic campaigns of character assassination. This is characterized as “effective politics” but what it really is, is electronic, and very public bullying. As adults, we should recognize that we have “seen the bully, and it is us”. As Amanda Todd has so graphically reminded us, society can no longer afford to sit back and shake our collective heads. Two many lives (physical and emotional) are at stake.
What we are really talking about is deliberate harassment. Somehow, describing it as “bullying” seems to make it seem less serious, almost childish. It conjures up an image of pushing and shoving on the playground, or minor shake-downs for lunch money (which used to be called “taxation” when I was a Head in Montreal), or the “funny” practice of shutting students into lockers. But, as we saw this week, it is actually deadly serious.
Moreover, the insurmountable challenge of cyber bulling, especially through social media or forwarded emails, is that once this Pandora’s box has been opened, the ripple effect is impossible to predict. What might be intended as a very pointed and narrow audience spirals out of control and even the bully may be remorseful (often too late) about the impact of her or his actions.
So, as I walk down the halls this Monday morning, wearing my only pink shirt, I have to wonder that, given our own weaknesses in this area, how are we to effectively encourage our kids to take a higher road? Part of the answer is access (no cell phones or pda’s at school; monitoring of Facebook and email accounts by parents at home, including having your children access their computer only in “public” areas of the house; etc.)
External controls help, but the real answer is to help our children to instill internal controls, self-policing, and a solid values-based understanding of the potential negative impact of their actions. This week, the news is full of Amanda’s story along with those of other children who have suffered in this way. And, it may eventually be that the media themselves will provide us with enough of these apocryphal stories to bring us collectively to our senses.
But we can’t afford to wait. In the meantime, we have to reflect on our own behaviours and to talk openly and frankly with our children, because this is a war that will be won not on the internet, but by families sitting face to face at the dinner table.