Does Cyberbullying Exist?

Cyberbullying is real
Cyberbullying is real

After Tyler Clementi‘s recent death, a flurry of warnings went out to parents everywhere about the dangers of cyberbullying. But does cyberbullying even exist, or is it just straight up bullying whether it’s on the Internet or in a classroom?

Anil Dash says there’s no such thing as cyberbullying. Cruelty, racism and homophobia are awful to endure and evil to perpetrate. Dash argues that there’s no difference in the medium used. More importantly, he sees the word as a cop-out for parents, teachers and traditional media to let themselves off the hook.

By pointing fingers at new technology, we can blame the unknown interloper in our midst, rather than having to deal with our own failings in protecting our kids from becoming either bullies or victims.

Sure. Yet I’m going to respectfully disagree with Mr. Dash: I think cyberbullying is a unique thing, different from schoolyard bullying in important ways.

It’s virtual character gives it both strength and weakness: if someone says nasty things about me on the Internet (and trust me, they do. I’m a professional blogger, it goes with the territory) I can just turn the computer off and walk away. Cyberbullies never come into my home and attack me, they never throw rocks or pull my hair or put dog poop in my locker.

On the other hand, those insults don’t go away. No one I know now has ever seen or heard any of the nasty nicknames kids on the playground threw my way in middle school. I’m happy to have it that way. For kids today, there’s a lasting record of their cruelty that can haunt both the victims and the bullies.

Also: the Internet is viral. Just like there’s a difference between sharing a mix-tape with a few friends and sharing your entire music collection through bittorrent, there’s a difference between slagging someone on a playground and doing it on a social network. As happened with Jessi Slaughter over the summer, a clever bit of nastiness aimed at an innocent kid can get picked up and repeated by thousands of people. That’s a reach that schoolyard bullies never had before.

This doesn’t make cyberbullying necessarily worse or better than the old-fashioned kind. But let’s be clear: it is different. The same technology that has given us a wealth of new tools for living better, more connected lives also gave us new weapons for hurting each other in petty, cruel ways.

Photo: Daniel Foster