Online intimidation – has social media increased teenage bullying?

My initial response to the above question is to answer ‘no, it hasn’t’.  I base this on the assumption that bullying is a perennial issue amongst children and teenagers, existing long before social media came along and that there is no evidence that social media incites someone to bully (i.e. it doesn’t cause the behaviour).

However, there seem to be (from reading Dana Boyd’s book ‘It’s Complicated‘ and others) three areas where social media does affect the extent and perception of bullying:

  • It’s on show – everybody on social media can see what is happening, both at the time and afterwards
  • It reaches into the home – unlike more ‘traditional’ bullying, which took place at school or in the streets, bullying via social media enables access to the victim 24/7
  • It enables instant responses – previously, if someone was bullied via malicious gossip between groups or via graffiti etc. responses would pan out over a period of hours, days or weeks.  Now, a comment posted on Facebook and Twitter may elicit multiple responses within seconds

Let’s look at these in turn:

It’s on show

Boyd uses the example of a teenager who is caught cyber bullying.  As a result, her mother joins Facebook, to ‘monitor’ the girl.  I would argue, in common with Boyd, that this does little good – teenagers value their privacy, and monitoring your teenager’s behaviour on a social media site is likely to do little more than move it to a differerent site or a hidden account.  Teens are “struggling with their own sense of self, how they relate to others, and what it means to fit into the broader world” (Boyd, 2014, p.141) and, to a large extent, have to be taught the skills to find their own way through social negotiation.  It can also be difficult for parents to know what is bullying, and what is in fact an ‘in joke’ (Boyd, 2014).

In addition, by comments or pictures etc. being ‘on show’ they are available for people to refer back to, copy and/or alter to suit themselves.  The example used by Boyd of the ‘star wars kid’ demonstrates how an initially innocuous video was taken, changed, and re-distributed as a means of bullying.  Once material is ‘out there’ it is very difficult, if not impossible, to remove it, and this means an initial single act of bullying may remain ‘on show’ for months or even years.

It reaches into the home

The Telegraph wrote an article on Felix Alexander, a child who was persistantly bullied, both on and offline, to the extent he took his own life at the age of 17.  They write of “taunts that can reach into the recesses of a child’s bedroom via a handset”.  Fortunately, most children never experience this level of sustained bullying and ‘Generalizing from cases like (these) creates distorted pictures of bullying’ (Boyd, 2014, p.133).  Nonetheless, it is significant that the technology now available can facilitate a near constant arena for bullying, which parents and other adults may not be aware of.

It enables instant responses

Gossip and rumour are both highlighted by the teenagers Boyd interviews, not as examples of bullying (as adults would often identify them), but as ‘drama’.  Online gossip and rumours could be (and were) responded to rapidly by the targeted party, making the action less one sided, and, therefore, not bullying.  The reverse side of this is that, as response can be made instantly, with no time for reflection, there is the potential for conflict to escalate rapidly and for other individuals to become involved.  Social media specifically allows this escalation, and escalation can be ‘primed’ by individuals seeking “a way of achieving attention, working out sexual interests, and redirecting anger or frustration” (Boyd, 2014, p.138)

In conclusion

Although social media offers new mechanisms of bullying, the behaviours themselves seem, in the main, to be simply an extension of teenage social exploration and boundary testing.  Rather than surveillance or direct adult censure, educating children and teenagers about online behaviours, and “recognizing where teens are at and why they engage in particular acts of meanness and cruelty” (Boyd, 2014, p.152), is the only way to help children and teenagers keep themselves, and others, safe online.





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