Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Investigating the "Benefits" of Bullying Online

Today we're picking up the conversation from yesterday, and investigating whether cyberbullying has any positive effects. We've looked at some articles discussing the adaptive and maladaptive ways children respond to bullying, and determined that bullying may help children develop responses for challenging situations and help them identify personalities to avoid later in life. There are definite consequences though. Today, we'll be looking at whether these ideas are true in the context of as well.

The research I've been reading deals mainly with the physical playground or classroom. In these instances, the perpetrator can be physically identified—and avoided or contended with in some way. The Times article we were discussing yesterday notes that one effect of bullying is that children may learn what types of individuals to avoid—so it's beneficial to not like someone who doesn't like you, or to not like someone who reminds you of someone who doesn't like you, because presumably this helps minimize sites of conflict.

But there are instances online where you may not really know the identity of your aggressor. For example, in a case taken from Safer Internet Day 2010 a sophomore was harassed about her weight online. On a message board a thread was started called "Lauren is a fat cow MOO BITCH" and targeted her weight as well as a her bout (multiple sclerosis). Examples of comments included
  • "people don't like you because you are a suicidal cow who can't stop eating"
  • "I guess I'll have to wait until you kill yourself which I hope is not long from now, or I'll have to wait until your disease [M.S.] kills you"
  • "Die bitch queen!"
In another example, a 14-year-old was targeted after reporting some girls in her eighth grade class for stealing a case with her makeup. When she got home, she began to receive instant messages telling her she was a tattletale and a liar, and a "stuck up bitch." She continued to receive instant messages on her cell phone throughout the evening. The digital assault continued though the girls involved never actually spoke to each other about the incident.

These cases are interesting because they highlight the ways cyberbullying differs from "normal" schoolyard bullying. First, bullying becomes a private matter. Instead of it occurring on the playground, it comes home with you; it happens when you're in your bedroom, and it happens on your phone—it occurs all the time. Interestingly, even though it's private, because bullying occurs online it is also more public. Anyone can visit a website or bulletin board and while they may not know you personally, a reputation about you is being shared.

Cyberbullies often don't use their real names when interacting online and online screen names and email addresses can further help hide a person's true identity. For example, in the case of Megan Meier, the teen who hanged herself as a result of cyberbullying, the aggressor was a neighbor's mother who posed as a boy, "Josh," online partly to test the strength of friendship between Megan and her teen.
If teens and others don't know who's at the other end of the message, they cannot learn which individuals and personalities should be avoided. The cannot learn which individuals to dislike back. And if they cannot interact comfortably with people online, the result may be social withdrawal in real life as well—particularly when the cyberbullying is reflected in real life. With the case of the Lauren, her car was egged, the words MOO BITCH were written in shaving cream on the sidewalk in front of her house, and a bottle of acid was thrown at her front door injuring her mother.

If we think back to the article by Snyder et. al. (2003) which suggests that bullying is a vicious cycle where some children become targets because they exhibit anxiety, unhappiness, and uncertainty then we can suggest that the web actually encourages these feelings in the context of bulling, and so perpetrates the cycle of bullying. Because online targets have no sense of how and whom to respond to, they may experience these "victim" tendencies that can translate into additional harassment online or real-world harassment.

Cyberbullying certainly warrants additional investigation. Children and teens who can respond appropriately to harassment have a better chance at managing and dispelling it, but these aren't skills they necessarily come into naturally. And the true toll of bullying—online and offline—has yet to fully be understood.

What are your thoughts, Readers? Have you dealt with a bully, either online or offline? Share below.

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