Why is cyberbullying different?

Why is cyberbullying different?

Summary: Bullying, unfortunately, is nothing new. Neither, for that matter, is cyberbullying. It's simply a term that parents and politicians bandy about as they talk about "the dangers of the Internet," right? Or maybe not. The case of Phoebe Prince certainly brings the topic into stark relief and begs the question "why is cyberbullying different?"


Last month, a young student named Phoebe Prince who lived just miles from our sleepy town apparently killed herself as a result of bullying, both in school and via text messages and Facebook. While the exact circumstances and details of the investigation aren't being released, it's clear that cyberbullying played a role in her death. In our own schools, we've seen an uptick in the number of students reporting bullying (even before this tragic death) via either social media or text messages. Whether this is because of an increase in awareness, an actual increase in online bullying, or the near ubiquity of Facebook is unclear.

Bullying, unfortunately, is nothing new. Neither, for that matter, is cyberbullying. It's simply a term that parents and politicians bandy about as they talk about "the dangers of the Internet," right? Or maybe not. The case of Phoebe Prince certainly brings the topic into stark relief and begs the question, "why is cyberbullying different?"

Parents in Prince's community are calling for the Superintendent to be sacked over what they perceive as an unwillingness to address the issue proactively and head-on. Many districts are now scrambling to implement programs and policies in the face of her death. And yet, unfortunately, too many other kids have struggled with depression, alienation, and even suicide as a result of bullying long before the World Wide Web and Facebook. What has changed?

To some extent, I think we can credit a generally increased sensitivity to the needs and struggles of our students. However, cyberbullying adds an entirely new dimension of permanence, public humiliation, and viral propagation to bullying. When threats and insults are posted on a social network for all to see (or at least the circle of acquaintances that matter to students), the effect can be fundamentally different than passing insults in the halls or the aggression of bullies in the locker room. It is inescapable.

Sure, students could just avoid Facebook, the Internet, and their mobile phones, but these are vital parts of their social interactions in the 21st Century. They are also always on, constantly reminding students of the discomforts of teenage life.

So what do we do? Are schools responsible for what happens outside school hours? If we just ban cell phones and block Facebook at school are we doing our part? I don't think it's that simple. As long as activities outside of school have a direct impact on learning, the school has a role to play in mitigating their harmful effects. Beyond the idea of promoting a safe learning environment, though, schools are well-positioned to gather information from students, provide feedback to parents and community resources, and hopefully intervene when a student is in danger.

It can be as simple as fostering good partnerships with local police departments or developing no-tolerance policies for bullying (cyber or otherwise). Creating strong communities of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and outside resources provides students with the safe havens they no longer have in a 24/7/365-connected environment. Facebook isn't going anywhere; our students' understanding of what they can and should tolerate and when to seek help is what needs to change.

Topic: Social Enterprise

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Anonymity

    Cyberbullying is often crueller than the run of the mill school ground spat. People can hide behind an avatar never having to face the consequences of the hurt they cause. People also hind behind a keyboard, it is far easier to type some nasties up than to say it in someone?s face. And often the victim is so embarrassed; they will not speak out / identify the perpetrator in fear of further ridicule.
    Kids can be incredibly cruel, especially at an age when al they want is to be accepted by their peers. I don?t know how this issue can be handled ? surely schools / communities don?t have reach as to what happens on social media scene?
    • Spot on!

      Add in the pervasiveness of the internet into the private side of the persons life. Anonymous, constant pressure from immature kids. It will break some.
      • Also add in that text can be read and re-read, over and over...

        Text isn't forgotten as easily as what a person says in passing... Text, it can be read and re-read over and over, by anyone and everyone... And this alone, makes the stakes far greater...

        Text battles are usually won by the person with the higher social intellect. Unless we are talking about when a group of people gang up on one individual over text, then it could get ugly fast... If the offending parties don't know each other, than it is easy to blow off... But if they do know each other, then it can be far worse... And that is exactly what happens in these cyber-bullying cases.

        The consequences can be, and have been, deadly? There should be a zero tolerance policy against it in K-12 schools as well as Higher Ed regardless of when and how it happened (i.e. outside school hours). The pen is mightier than the sword, but the text is the one ring that in the darkness binds them.

        It can be pure evil if you want it to be...
    • Re: Anonymity

      There is no anonymity on Facebook or MySpace, these kids all visit each other's pages and it's really an extension of the social life they participate in at school. At the same time, the audience is a lot wider and the bullying more permanent.

      The bullying you're speaking of is related to forums and message boards, but kids don't spend a whole lot of time on those types of social netwworks, if at all.
      • Anonymity Possible

        I'm not sure about MySpace, but it's perfectly possible to create an anonymous Facebook account from which to send messages or create groups from. When creating a group with malicious content then passing out invites to join the group (and eventually the person the content is directed at) kids, like most people, will likely just hit accept to join a group or accept friends they don't know.

        The end effect could be a whole bunch of kids linked (out of curiosity or maliciousness) to an anonymous Facebook group with malicious content directed at a particular person.
      • It is possible to create

        an anonymous account on facebook and myspace - nor are they the only social networking sites, just the most popular right now. There was the case of a woman who made up a fake myspace and eventually drove a young girl to suicide because of some issues between the girl and her daughter.
  • I am not sure more policy is the answer...

    Bullying has been around for as long as the human race. Of course it would follow us into the Internet.

    1. You really can't keep children safe. Our society has chosen to keep children effectively in a bottle and they still are not safe. Especially from the perspective of someone who grew up in the 1970s/early 80s.
    2. Why not handle cyber bullying like you handle regular bullying, teach ways to toughen up. Sure the bullying statements are there for everyone to see but so are the responses. 80% of all bullies are weak and if you stand up to them, they run away. You do have to worry about the other 20% however.
    3. Teach children how to handle the Internet. For good or bad, the Internet is here, parents should educate themselves and their children on how to handle themselves on the Internet. It is no different from teaching a child to safely cross a busy street.
    • I disagree, bullying is not acceptable.

      The attitude of "oh well, there has always been bullying" is very much like saying oh well, there have always been murderes and doing nothing about it.

      Have you seen the story of the Adult woman in Missouri that bullied a teen girl to the point she killed herself and the law is doing nothing about it because "Being a bully is not against the law".

      If I were the girl's father the Law would be the very last thing this woman would ever have to worry about and you can take that to the bank.
      • Huh?

        So you would attack the woman who bullied your daughter? Doesn't that kind of make my point?

        You are right, my point is humans have always bullied each other. It is how we establish dominance in our tribes.

        You claim you want to do something to stop it but your solution seems to be part of the over all problem. Fighting fire with fire just means more stuff burns down.

        My ideas are to train and teach people to survive and possible thrive in a realistic scenario. You have to face a bully and yeah sometimes the bully wins but if you don't face them they always win. Over protecting your children just makes them weaker and unable to stand up for themselves. Teach them the skills to stand up for themselves and support them on the back end as well. But sooner or later everyone will have to deal with situations with bullies. You can't protect your children forever and it probably is a mistake to try.
        • In the case that Axe was referring to

          I am in full agreement with his assessment... if it was MY daughter you'd bet your ass I'd be bullying that woman right back. IF it was a kid doing it - while still not acceptable - it would be different but in this situation we are talking about a grown woman who drove a young girl to suicide... And what I do not understand about that situation is that while bullying may not be illegal child abuse is - and that is exactly what that woman did.
          • The Law and Child Abuse

            Right on. Perhaps a lawyer can look at this case
            and be the first to break new legal grounds in the
            application of Child Abuse laws already on the
        • Self Defense in the Third Person

          Taking on the mother that is bullying your child would arguably be a part of the self defense laws, codes and doctrines of society. A parent protecting his or her child from harm is one of the duties and responsibilities of a parent.

          And, no, his solution is NOT part of the problem. Your do nothing mentality is the the problem. Education only works when the parties are willing to learn.

          Your statement of fighting fire with fire causing more stuff to burn down is drivel, pure and simple. Learn the history of the phrase before making inane comments toward it. There is a very real difference between over protection and protection.

          I taught my children to stand up for themselves, but there are times when it's the parent's responsibility to step in. When an adult is abusing your child, it's time for you to have a little "come to Jesus" time with that adult.

          Yes, it takes a village to raise a child, but first and foremost, it takes an involved parent - a parent willing and able to shield and protect their child, when necessary, as well as willing and able to let him or her stand on his or her own two feet. Knowing when to do which is the difficult part. An adult bullying your child takes all the guess work out of it.
          Dr. John
      • Bullying is GOOD

        to a certain extent. It teaches us how to deal
        with the bullying we face when we grow up. Because
        without preparing for that, adulthood will be
        hell. I myself learned a few very good tricks to
        deal with bullies when I was a child, and I still
        use them when necessary. No law can protect us
        against bullies, we have to learn to deal with the
        problem personally. By the way, the word for adult
        bullying is bureaucracy.
    • I agree

      I happened to write my post before I read yours but I think very similarly.

      I don't think Bullying is right, I think it is human nature.

      You cannot condone it but neither assume that if you wish hard it will go away.

      Parents should provide to their children the confidence to report the bullying and there must be support services with people trained to coach and support children going through bullying.
  • Where you are wrong...

    "Sure, students could just avoid Facebook, the Internet, and their mobile phones, but these are vital parts of their social interactions in the 21st Century."

    Wrong! In fact I can think of nothing that is as big a time waster as this garbage is.

    As far as bullying, have you ever watched the show "Bully Beatdown"? Much to be learned from it. Catch someone bullying another, give them a public caning. Bullying will not look so attractive to others.
    • That may be true...

      ...but the ones who have to be convinced that it's a time-waster are the young people themselves. As we mature we of course realize how senseless it all is. But for most youth, it's all about their peers.

      As long as young people are so focused on peer approval, bullying will be possible. Someone who doesn't care what others think can't be "cyber-bullied", only physically assaulted (and that carries its own penalties, which if anything should be more severe than they are now).

      Carl Rapson
      • True, parents need to parent.

        But we know that isn't going to happen.
        • The root problem is identified!

          We have met the enemy and he is us.
      • You are dead wrong....

        Part of school is learning social interaction... Peer pressure and approval is extremely important in this learning process... It can be both good and bad...

        And here is the rub...

        Avoiding social sites doesn't make a difference.. A kid could be computer illiterate and still be cyber-bullied... A peer need only start making comments about them on their own MySpace page, and others join in, and the victim hears about it third party, and it still does the damage...

        Cyber-bullying is unlike any bullying that came before it... It's not like a kid could stay late at school, take a different route home, have parents pick them up, or stand up and punch some bully in the nose in a defining moment of courage... It's completely different and it allows anyone who can read to witness the humiliation and join the ridicule over a period of unlimited time... You see, the moment of conflict doesn't last a few seconds or a few minutes as it does with the old fashioned bullying... Thanks to technology it can last hours, days, or even years... but there is nothing that could be done to change that... That is part of cyber-socializing...

        The only thing we can do is protect our kids from it until they are out of college. At least it wouldn't interfere with their academic learning and give them more time to be prepared to stand solo in the unforgiving society of the cyber world.

        That woman that cyber-bullied that teen girl to death should be hung in public? A cyber war is always won by the person with more social intellect. That was like a grown man beating a 5 year old kid to death? The teen didn?t stand a chance against that vindictive b1#ch.
    • Waste of time...

      Just because you believe Facebook and MySpace are a waste of time doesn't mean the rest of the inhabitants of this planet do.

      You're entitled to your own opinion, but don't believe for a second that your beliefs will change the beliefs of the rest of humanity.