Tag Team Tech December 2010

Bullying: Is Technology to Blame?

Linda Braun

December 2010

I want to scream, every time I hear librarians talking about how technology has made bullying a problem in their schools and libraries. But I don’t; instead, I ask questions such as:

•  Were you ever bullied when you were a teen or tween?

•  Were you a bully?

•  Did you know a bully?

•  Did you know someone who was bullied?

The answer is always “yes” to at least one of those questions. With that acknowledgement in hand, it’s possible to start a conversation that doesn’t blame technology for bullying, but focuses on bullying as something that has been a problem for a long time, but has been brought to the fore, for good or for bad, as a result of social media technologies.

Whats the Cause?

It’s easy to blame technology when the national media scream how Facebook or YouTube or Twitter has caused the death of a young person.  The suicides of Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi both had a social media connection. But, as the stories of the lives of these teens unfold in the press it usually becomes clear that in the tragedy which has befallen each of these young people, social media was not the cause of the bullying which occurred.

In a report entitled Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies to the Attorneys General of the United States, the Berkman Center for Internet  & Society found that technology, such as filters, would not keep young people safe in Web environments.  The reason? Children and teens don’t behave badly because they interact online.  It’s society and what’s going on in a young person’s life at home and at school that is the underlying cause.

After the suicides of Pheobe Prince and Tyler Clementi, one of the knee jerk responses was a call to create laws that punish those that use technology as a bullying tool.  New laws might be helpful, but they are far from the answer to the technology-enabled bullying that is a part of the world in which we live. As John Palfrey, the co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, wrote in The New York Times shortly after Tyler Clementi’s death, “In using the law to address this problem, we need first to examine whether the law is sufficient in this new hybrid online-offline environment to discourage this kind of behavior and whether we are acting in a just manner with respect to those who are harmed and those who do the harm.”

Since there are societal issues at work, laws can not be the sole answer to handling the bullying that goes on in a young person’s life. In a blog article on what teens have to say about bullying, social media researcher Danah Boyd wrote, “Combating bullying is not going to be easy, but it’s definitely not going to happen if we don’t dive deep in the mess that underpins it and surrounds it. Lectures by uncool old people like me aren’t going to make teens, who are engaged in dramas, think twice about what they’re doing. And, for that matter, using the term “bullying” is also not going to help at all either. We need interventions that focus on building empathy, identifying escalation, and techniques for stopping the cycles of abuse. We need to create environments where young people don’t get validated for negative attention and where they don’t see relationship drama as part of normal adult life.”

If It’s Posted on Facebook, It’s There Forever

One thing that people often say to me is that technology puts a new spin on bullying because of the permanence and reach of something that is posted online.  This is true.  If a post goes on a Facebook wall, that post is forever and widely available unless someone decides to delete it. On the other hand, if someone is bullied on a playground, the mean words spoken or the black eye given do not have that same type of permanence and reach.

Children and teens need to learn that bullying in any form is not acceptable. Lack of permanence or wide distribution does not make aggression more ok.  And children and teens need to know what to do if they are on the receiving end of bullying, no matter what form it takes.  Adults need to talk to children and teens about being a bully or being bullied.  And adults need to intervene forcefully when they become aware of potential or actual bullying.  Nancy Williard, of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use states, “It’s essential for everyone to take personal responsibility and speak out by saying ‘hey, it’s not OK’”.

What is the Solution?

It would be nice if the causes of bullying  were easy to identify and the solutions easy to provide–in any context.  As adults who play a role in teen lives, we have to look at the complex, underlying issues. We also have to go beyond looking for easy solutions and scapegoats.

In October of this year, the FCC began a discussion about requiring bullying education in schools.  Yes, students of all ages need to be taught about the perils of bullying.  But, do we have to wait for legislation to do it?  Can’t we start today?

Technology is not going away. Web 2.0 and social media are not going away.  Misidentifying technology as the cause of bullying is not going to solve anything.  Let’s stop hiding from the real issues that are making the lives of teens in our libraries difficult.  That’s the only way we are going to provide workable solutions to a real problem.

Resources Mentioned

Boyd, Danah. “Bullying” Has Little Resonance with Teenagers.  DMLcentral.  http://dmlcentral.net/blog/danah-boyd/bullying-has-little-resonance-teenagers

Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies. http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/research/isttf

Magid, Larry.  Tyler Clementi’s Death is a Call to Action. Safe and Secure Blog. http://news.cnet.com/8301-19518_3-20018492-238.html

Palfrey, John. Cyberbullying and a Student’s Suicide: Solutions Beyond the Law. The New York Times Opinion Pages. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/09/30/cyberbullying-and-a-students-suicide/palfrey

Regulators Take on Cyberbullying in Schools. http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE69S33T20101029

Linda W. Braun is the immediate past president of YALSA and works as a New York City-based educational technology consultant with LEO: Librarians and Educators Online. She provides training, consulting, and project management for schools, libraries, and other educational institutions. She also teaches for Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Her latest book is Risky Business: Taking and Managing Risks in Library Services for Teens (ALA, 2010). Contact her at lbraun@leonline.com.

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