Cyberbullying and Internet Safety

Cyberbullying and Internet Safety

Deirdre M. Kelly (University of British Columbia, Canada) and Chrissie Arnold (University of British Columbia, Canada)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 31
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8310-5.ch021
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The chapter considers cyberbullying in relation to Internet safety, concentrating on recent, high quality empirical studies. The review discusses conventional debates over how to define cyberbullying, arguing to limit the term to repeated, electronically-mediated incidents involving intention to harm and a power imbalance between bully and victim. It also takes note of the critical perspective that cyberbullying—through its generic and individualistic framing—deflects attention from the racism, sexism, ableism, and heterosexism that can motivate or exacerbate the problem of such bullying. The review concludes that: (a) cyberbullying, rigorously defined, is a phenomenon that is less pervasive and dire than widely believed; and (b) cyber-aggression and online harassment are more prevalent, yet understudied. Fueled by various societal inequalities, these latter forms of online abuse require urgent public attention. The chapter's recommendations are informed by a view of young people as apprentice citizens, who learn democratic participation by practicing it.
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What is cyberbullying? We thought to begin this chapter with a compelling vignette that we could refer back to, as we discussed the research. But we were stymied trying to draw from an actual case discussed in the media or legal briefs, or to select a fictional story, a hypothetical incident used in survey research, or a rich description from a qualitative study.

All the high-profile media cases linked to cyberbullying told stories of misogyny, racism, and homophobia so severe as to constitute serious criminal acts better dealt with by the justice system, rather than the relatively less serious incidents more amenable to an educational approach that the term cyberbullying conjured. Complicating matters still further, the real-life cases that received media attention usually ended in suicide by the victim—misleadingly implying that cyberbullying causes suicide. We initially thought of selecting one of these stories, because they had actually happened, would be widely known, and would highlight the gravity of the underlying issues. We began to realize that this strategy is common in the research literature. Wingate, Minney, and Guadagno (2013), for example, begin their review article by recounting the story of Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old who had come out as gay and been subject to homophobic bullying by peers at school and online—later, after Jamey’s suicide, the bullying was investigated as criminal harassment. Wong-Lo and Bullock (2014) introduce their topic of bystander culture in cyberbullying by referencing Amanda Todd, the 15-year-old whose video, titled My Story: Struggling, Bullying, Suicide, and Self Harm, garnered over a million viewers after Amanda committed suicide. Other researchers mention cases like these that end in suicide in their conclusion; for example, Wright and Burnham (2012) do this to underscore for The Professional Counselor audience the importance of earliest possible “cyberbullying interventions” (p. 175).

We also turned to fiction as a possible source. J. K. Rowling’s (2012) novel The Casual Vacancy, in various reviews, has been said to contain a subplot about cyberbullying. One of the teenage characters, Sukhvinder Jawanda, is subjected to bullying at school and tormented daily with anonymous, hateful postings to her Facebook wall. Over the course of the book, Sukhvinder is subjected to racist, sexist, and homophobic epithets, insults to her family’s Sikh religion and national origin, and demeaning comments about her body (hairy, fat) and dyslexia. While Rowling makes clear that Sukhvinder has other reasons besides the acts of her “anonymous cyber-torturer” (p. 132) to be depressed, the cyberbullying does contribute significantly to her self-loathing, slicing her arms with a razor blade, and suicidal thoughts.

If fiction and high-profile media cases tend to the extreme yet also, in their detail, hint at patterns of online harassment and abuse that amount to hate crimes and institutional forms of oppression, then hypothetical vignettes developed for research purposes achieve nearly the opposite effects. In trying to devise a scenario with broad resonance, researchers, often by design, strip the cyberbullying incident of context. For example, Price and colleagues (2014) used the animation Broken Friendship, wherein Katie passes along her best friend’s password to “the beautiful people,” who then use it to create humiliating images and emails of Katie’s friend, and these are then spread among teens at the school. The authors explain that the figures in the animation were “deliberately shown in silhouette to ensure the removal of any identifying cultural context, allowing for personal identification and interpretation of the scenario from any situation” (p. 5). Unfortunately, as we will discuss in more detail in a later section, this may have the effect of obscuring the complex workings of power, including who gets to belong to the “beautiful people” and by what means. From this more critical sociocultural perspective, the term cyberbullying serves as a euphemism for phenomena better described as, for example, online sexual harassment, where “harassment is based on unequal, gendered power relations within and between the sexes” (Kelly, Pomerantz, & Currie, 2006, p. 21).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Moral Panic: Stanley Cohen’s concept of a process whereby mainstream media sensationalize a putative social crisis (e.g., youth violence), fueling concerns among the public across an ideological spectrum, and building support for authorities, including politicians, to take action and restore a sense of social order. Examples include cyberbullying or digital technologies as highly risky in the hands of children and youth.

Cyber-Aggression: General peer-to-peer aggression that occurs online and consists in one-off occurrences or happens occasionally but where there is not a power imbalance between the aggressor and the target of aggression or where there is no intention to inflict harm or distress.

Cyberbullying: Like traditional (offline) bullying, it is aggressive behavior that is repeated, intended to cause harm, and involves a power imbalance between bully and victim. It is distinguished by its occurrence through online contact. The electronic means of communication spotlights additional elements of potential relevance (i.e., greater anonymity, scale of publicity, missing or ambiguous social cues, 24/7 feature of the Internet) for understanding the nature, severity, and impact of the online name-calling, threats, and acts meant to embarrass, harass, or humiliate.

Citizenship, Children and Youth: Civic identity in relation to democracy, which varies by how democracy is envisioned. When young people are seen as future citizen-consumers , adults act to protect and prepare children by teaching them how to manage risks and about democratic virtues such as respect and tolerance. When young people are seen as apprentice citizens , adults encourage them to learn democracy by practicing it. Positioning young people as de facto citizens means recognizing contexts where they are already full-fledged political actors and knowing subjects.

Harassment, Identity-Based: Repeated acts (such as contacting, tracking, or threatening someone) that annoy and distress the recipient and that are based on the victim’s membership in a social group. Harassment becomes criminal when the behavior causes the person targeted to become reasonably fearful for her or his safety. See also, sexual harassment, online.

Cyberattack: A one-time yet serious incident of aggression where the aggressor intended harm and a power imbalance is present. It does not constitute cyberbullying due to its one-off occurrence.

Online Safety Risks: These have been classified according to content, contact, and conduct. Conduct risks occur in daily encounters among peers, with cyberbullying being the prime example. Content risks include encountering pornography, unwanted commercials, violent or gory images, hate-mongering websites, and so on. Contact risks include strangers attempting to engage with young people online for nefarious reasons, including grooming for pedophilia and sexual harassment and coercion.

Sexual Harassment, Online: Consists in unwanted sexualized comments, threats of sexual violence (e.g., rape), misogynist epithets, and sexist insults that create a hostile climate or digital gender safety gap. Aimed at enforcing gender boundaries in cyberspace, it is based on unequal, gendered power relations within and between the sexes and takes three main forms: unwanted sexual attention, sexual coercion, and gender harassment. See also harassment, identity-based.

Hate Speech: Public communication that vilifies individuals based on their membership in a social group. In Canada, the federal Criminal Code prohibits hate speech against “identifiable groups” based on color, race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, national origin, age, sex, and mental or physical disability (but not gender identity). See also harassment, identity-based.

Sexting: Sending sexually explicit text messages or intimate images of oneself—full or partial nude shots or sexy poses—to another person via cell phone, usually consensually. When a former intimate partner shares these sexually explicit messages or images non-consensually with other people intending to humiliate the subject depicted, this has been labeled revenge porn .

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