Black letters flash across the screen, launching an attack of rumors and insults. A text, a Facebook wall post, a Tweet – a line or two is all it takes to wound someone’s self-esteem, to bring tears, to ruin a friendship. With the explosion of modern technology, old-school bullying is out and a new type of bullying is taking the stage. But while stuffing someone in a locker is a pretty obvious sign of harassment, with no bruises or bloody noses as evidence of abuse, cyber-bullying often doesn’t raise alarms until it’s too late.
“It’s such a gray area,” says Broadcast teacher Charles Huette. “It’s easy to talk about but difficult to identify.” When asked to define “cyber-bullying,” most students respond with a blank look. Most eventually describe it as something hurtful said online about another, but the definition is far from clear-cut. One of the challenges with cyber-bullying is its chameleon effect: it takes many forms, often blending in with its surroundings.
Commentary and criticism are hardly uncommon on the Web. In many ways, cyber-bullying is simply part of a modern world that focuses on spectacle. “The ‘MO’ of Twitter is to trash-talk. It’s to get attention,” Huette says.
“I think it’s a substitute for getting attention in real life [but] at someone else’s expense.” Websites like Twitter have made drawing attention to oneself simple and common. So common, in fact, that the results of online actions often don’t merit a second thought. When “George” posted comments about other students on Twitter, he didn’t intend it to be an attack. “I just thought it was funny,” he says. “When I wrote it, I thought that the people I wrote about or their friends weren’t going to see it because I know who follows me, but it got around.
I didn’t realize that [the students or a teacher] would actually see it.” George doesn’t fit the mold of a typical bully. In fact, when he heard that his comments had spread beyond his Twitter circle, he was surprised and embarrassed. With voices and faces hidden in an artificial cyber-world, many forget that words are still very real – and not easily contained. His recent actions and experiences showed George the realities of the Web.
“I have said rude things before, but that’s not why I made my Twitter account,” George says. “I didn’t really think about the consequences of saying a rude thing. [But recently] someone hacked my friend’s Twitter and wrote really hurtful stuff about me and others. So I’m realizing what it’s like.” Though he’s now rethinking his comments, George defines cyber-bullying with one main distinction: intent. “I would say cyber-bullying is when you intentionally attack someone, and directly say something mean or hurtful,” he says.
An unintentionally mean Twitter comment may or may not be cyber-bullying, but that doesn’t make it any less hurtful. The ease of sending words into cyberspace blurs the line between public and private, amusement and attack. Whatever the definition, the results are real. And even though actions on the Web can seem to be miles from reality, there’s no denying that the dangers are real. “It’s very clear that those things do have consequences. You hear about kids committing suicide,” Huette says.
Many feel that when it comes to cyber-bullying, it simply takes a click of the power button to zap away the negative effects. Unfortunately, it isn’t always that easy. “People think if you just walk away and move on, it goes away. But ignoring it won’t solve the problem,” says Tina, a junior. “It’s hurtful because people have their self-esteem crushed.” Though many students claim that they don’t often encounter what they would consider cyber-bullying, high school principal Dr.
Tonya Merrigan is quick to state that she has had to deal with many instances of cyber-bullying. “There are two different scenarios. One is when it happens in school, when they’re supposed to be in class. The other is that it happens at 10 p.m.
, at home. Even though it is at night, [if] it’s carried over into school, it’s affecting school work, and we get involved,” Merrigan says. Though her administration is dedicated to protecting students from all types of bullying, Merrigan admits that a school’s role in cyber-bullying is often not cut-and-dry. But the problem itself is not cut-and-dry, as both George’s and Merrigan’s examples illustrate. “Often the student who is supposedly doing the bullying is shocked when you talk to them. Sometimes they’re shocked that the other person would consider that bullying,” Merrigan says.
Facebook or fists, bullying is bullying. Though it may seem less real when it’s hidden behind a screen, the results are as solid as a slap in the face. There’s no doubt that the Internet is part of modern life, but with it comes a new set of dangers and responsibilities. In a world where privacy is fleeting and it’s almost as easy to inadvertently become the bully as the bullied, actions and words need the same care and consideration they merit in the real world.