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Cyberbullying: Prevalence, Preventability and Politics

Perhaps due, in part, to things I've read, thought and blogged about recently regarding cybershaming and accountability, and the fearful overreactions of parents and other authorities over teens' use of MySpace, I had a more skeptical reaction to a Wall Street Journal article this week on "Schools Act to Short-Circuit Spread of 'Cyberbullying'" than the last time I read, thought and blogged at any length about cyberbullying (nearly 3 years ago!).

The article alludes to the case of an 8th grade girl, Kylie, who suffered emotional distress over the purported creation of a web site titled "Kill Kylie Incorporated" by classmates ... a site of which I can find no trace, other than references in other articles (most of which are simply referring to the WSJ article). It goes on to catalog varying degrees of preventative measures considered or enacted by different schools and school districts, and the legal issues surrounding the prospect of schools intervening into affairs that take place, in large part, off campus.

Given my recent [re]priming of the MySpace overreaction, I started wondering how prevalent cyberbullying really is. The first few pages of results returned after googling for "cyberbullying statistics" yielded no results that I would consider statistically valid  An organization named i-Safe has a statistics page claiming that "42% of kids have been bullied while online" and that over half have sent or received mean messages online. Leaving aside the question of where they have drawn the line between receiving mean messages and bullying, I cannot find any information about the methodology by which the statistics were gathered (phrasing of questions, sampling method, numbers of responses, etc.). Another site, by Qing Li at the University of Calgary, provides a surprisingly small amount of methodological information (for an academic institution) -- a survey of "177 grade seven students (80 males and 97 females)" -- before noting that 54% of survey respondents had been bullied and 25% had been cyberbullied. Once again, it's not clear (to me) what bullying (or cyberbullying) means to the surveyor -- or surveyees -- but assuming that cyberbullying is simply the online equivalent of whatever bullying is in the offline world, it is interesting to see that cyberbullying appears far less prevalent than bullying (at least in this limited sample).

There are, of course, numerous articles about cyberbullying, just as there are numerous articles about abuses associated with MySpace. But it is not clear to me in either case that the use of online tools is increasing or even magnifying instances of "bad behavior". I'm not saying that aren't examples of horrendous deeds being accomplished through the use of online tools, it's just not clear how frequent or widespread such instances are.  And if one were to be able to somehow measure the overall frequency and/or severity of bullying (or other forms of abuse) -- combining online and offline incidents -- I wonder whether there really is a significant or demonstrable increase in either dimension.

I also wondered whether online tools might be used to mount more effective responses to bullying -- online or offline -- by offering a platform from which victims can mount defenses, or perhaps even counteroffenses, by shining a light on perpetrators and presenting rebuttals to unfair accusations or attacks ... another example of virtually "shooting back".  Perhaps schools could devote more effort to helping students understand how to utilize the technology more effectively in defending themselves or rallying to the defense of friends who are under fire ... of course, that would require the repeal of DOPA, and that seems like too much of an optimistic stretch of the imagination.

Reflecting further, on the relationship between cybershaming and cyberbullying, it seems like a rather fine line between them ... with the former seeming somehow justified and the latter seeming unjustified (picking on someone who deserves it vs. picking on someone who doesn't deserve it). I started wondering whether Kylie had done anything to incur the cyberwrath of her classmates (I can't find anything that says anything about events leading up to the creation of the purportedly humiliating site) -- I suspect it was a reaction (or overreaction) to something.

Probing a wee bit deeper, I started questioning whether anyone really deserves any kind of shame or bullying, cyber or otherwise. In my most recent post on cybershaming, I noted that my satisfaction in reading about web sites being used to highlight unacceptable (or at least unaccepted) behavior felt rather smug. I felt a twinge of embarrassment in writing [that part of] the post, and I feel it more keenly in this one. Did Kylie really deserve the purported humiliation she was allegedly subjected to? And who am I (or anyone else) to render such judgment?

I've also been noticing a smug satisfaction I've experienced in the increasing shame -- online and offline -- that U.S. President George W. Bush is being subjected to over the devastating consequences of his judgment and actions regarding the Iraq War.  As usual, I could not bring myself to watch or listen to his State of the Union address (though I could watch and listen to a parody); in the snippets I heard on NPR subsequently, he seems to have lost a bit of his hubris, and while I wouldn't go so far as to suggest he actually feels any shame, humiliation, guilt or remorse, I suspect he at least recognizes that, in the eyes of [many] others, he has done wrong. And I feel a sense of guilt over this feeling of smug satisfaction, especially given how many are suffering and dying -- and will likely suffer and die in the future -- in what Senator Harry Reid recently referred to as the worst foreign policy disaster ever.

Bringing the focus back to cyberbullying, I believe the greater transparency afforded by the growing array of easy-to-use online tools will ultimately reduce attacks by children against children, by giving them weapons with which they can fight back ... and, as I've noted before, I hope that adult citizens, inside and outside of government, will also learn how to use these tools to increase transparency and accountability, and reduce the frequency and severity of poor judgments by our leaders.

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