"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Cyber-bullying–Towards A More Rational Response

Playground bullying is and always has been a rite of passage. I wrote about my own childhood experiences (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/01/bullies.html) and concluded that I and my classmates learned to deal with bullies in many ways.  Some of us just ignored them, understanding that they were social misfits and of little earthly use to anyone and would eventually go away.  Others went crying to parents and teachers who more often than not told them to grow up and to deal with it.  A few others stood up to the bully, backed him down, and forced him to reveal his cowardice and real lack of character and conviction.  My point was not to canonize those who stand up and fight, but to suggest that the playground is the crucible within which we all learn how to deal with life’s unwanted intrusions and aggressions and each of us does this in different ways.  If we don’t learn lessons of social survival on the playground, then we will have to learn them later and more painfully.  Pretty much like childhood illnesses. 

In another article I wrote about how teachers and parents should mediate bullying incidents.  I felt that there was too much PC control, and attempts by well-meaning teachers to stop all bullying which often resulted in unfair and unreasonable dismissals and suspensions for the flimsiest unproven allegations, were wrong and counter-productive.  Teachers already were charged to stop fights, physical intimidation, and classroom violence, regardless of the cause, and to me this is where their authority should stop.  It is up to parents to counsel children just as they would about any other social hazard; and then it is up to the children themselves to translate that advice into practice (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/10/bullyingfinally-reasonable-response.html)

A lot has been made recently of cyber-bulling – using the Internet and social media to harass, intimidate, humiliate, and punish others.  Critics have said that such cyber-bullying takes the playground, in-your-face variety to another level altogether; and it is the anonymity of cyber-attacks which makes them so much easier to carry out.  A quick review of the literature suggests what most laymen can surmise.  Cyber-bullies, like their non-virtual counterparts act out adolescent insecurities, expressing unformed stereotypical notions of power and social status in aggressive ways. In addition all animals, human beings included, peck the Ugly Duckling out of the group.  Outsiders have always been threats to social integrity and cohesion and always will.  Social status is and always will be the prevailing feature in any society.  The pecking order is necessary for social order as well as for the survival of the fittest. This combination of the natural human tendencies for group homogeneity and status; plus adolescent insecurity and immature development of personal moral and ethical codes; is a heady mix.  It is no wonder why bullies exist.

However, cyber-bullying does add some new and important dimensions.  First, it allows ‘nerds’ to wreak the same havoc as the jocks.  In most American school environments, the athletes form the in-crowd, the cool clique, and the most admired; and in most schools, they are the ones who, in their immature adolescent desire to consolidate their power intimidate, humiliate, and marginalize others.  These jock-bullies are no different from authoritarian rulers.  Actual power is never enough. Construction and positive achievements are unsatisfying.  Only through total dominance and perceived supremacy can they finally enjoy their reign.

In the age of the Internet, the geek and the nerd have achieved parity.  They can exact revenge, demonstrate the power to humiliate and destroy, and can rise in social status as well as enjoy overdue psychological satisfaction.  The in-crowd uses cyberspace to diversify their bullying, not necessarily to add to their power status which they have in reality and in abundance.  Nerds gain power; and at least in the eyes of their equally nerdy friends, gain in status.

Cyber-bulling also allows for a more creative and inventive bullying.  Emails, texting, voice mail, social media are all dynamic media available to the cyber-bully.  Whereas a bully might confront his prey once a day on the playground, now he can pursue, harass, and stalk constantly and continuously.  The person bullied cannot get away.

Other than these two points, bullying remains the same.  Many bullies suffer from anxiety and depression, have little motivation for and participation in school, and have disengaged parents.  While most adolescents grapple with their insecurities, fears, and image alone; bullies appear more damaged than most and need to bully to cover over wounds already bleeding.

There is one additional factor about cyber-bullying that causes concern – many bullies report that they bully on the Internet because they are bored; i.e., they do it for entertainment.  This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of all this.  Children are not bullying out of immaturity, psychological pain, or unformed social constructs.  They do it because they have nothing else to do.

Those advocacy groups especially concerned about bullying have suggested that cyber-bullying is the direct cause of teenage suicides.  While this cry has received a lot of attention and certainly has rallied many previously indifferent parents around the issue, it is not true.

A new study released at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference and Exhibition this past weekend shows that cyber-bullying is rarely the only reason teens commit suicide. Most suicide cases also involve real-world bullying as well as depression. (Huffington Post, October 2012)

The real issue, then, is what to do about cyber-bullying, and the public outcry may well alert parents, teachers, and advisors to get more involved.  However, as we have seen in the case of  PC overkill in schools, there is a tendency to overreach and to invest in measures that address the symptom, not the cause.

In the field of behavior change, researchers always look first not at those whose practices need modification, but at those whose don’t.  In those countries in which I developed social marketing campaigns to positively change nutritional, health, and reproductive behavior, I first identified and isolated those families who were doing things right – despite the same socio-economic constraints as other families, they managed to understand the problem, figure out a way to deal with it, and prosper.   The same is true for bullying.  Every child has been bullied at some time in his or her life; and most have survived. They may have suffered at the time, but in so doing learned how to react in the future.  Very few children who had no serious underlying psychological disorders commit suicide.

Why is this? The answer is in part due to strong parental guidance.  A mechanistic approach to bullying (“If you are bullied, report it to your teachers and to your parents”) is clearly not enough.  Most children do not want to divulge their humiliation, especially to teachers and parents. Invasive surveillance of children’s communications is wrong and counter-productive.

Providing a strong moral education, one which focuses on principles rather than individual behavioral issues, enables the child to understand aggression, insult, and power in a more general way.  Respect, honor, fairness are right and proper.  Disrespect, humiliation, injustice are always wrong.   If there is a fundamental, underlying cause to bullying, it is in the lack of firm moral architecture within which the child can grow up. Children who receive this basic moral guidance are less likely to be bullies or to be bullied.

A good example of this has been cited in my blog post, above Bullies – Finally A Reasonable Response:

The “Be More Than a Bystander” campaign, orchestrated by the nonprofit Advertising Council underscores the problem with a series of television, print and online ads and a Web site promoting the idea that if witnesses know what to do, they can take various steps, such as moving the victim away from the situation or reporting the treatment to an adult, to defuse the bullying.

This approach also rejects the intrusive, politically-correct policies to control behavior through policing.  It accepts that bullying is part of growing up, but also acknowledges that it can and should be stopped by peers.  The approach encourages moral courage on the part of the observer and provides a face-saving out for the bullied (better to be helped by a friend rather than rescued by an adult)

A lot of this well-financed ‘Don’t be a bystander’ campaign focuses on what the designers consider the pernicious (as opposed to normal) aspects of bullying and still want to engineer PC corrections; but at least it brings the issue down to practical basics. Bullying exists.  Children need to learn how to deal with bullies who will never go away; and they need to learn how right it is to stand up for the defenseless.

In conclusion, although cyber-bullying has indeed added a new and troubling dimension to the problem, bullying still is and always will be a part of growing up.  A strong moral framework established by parents provides the foundation for children’s actions.  If brought up within these strict moral codes, they are likely to be the heroes in the ‘Don’t be a bystander’ program; and even if they are not, they are at least armed with the knowledge that it is the bullies who are damaged goods. Teachers will continue to have a role in policing the most egregious bullying offenses, and parents, once they find out about a cyber-attack in which their child has participated, must be as stern and unaccommodating as for any other serious offense.   Finally children will simply have to learn how to deal with bullying on their own.  Young people today live in a world of Internet exchanges and social networks.

If there is more bullying today, and if it is of a more insidious and pernicious nature, it is wrong to blame only the Internet and the distance and anonymity that it affords.  If children bully more aggressively and cruelly, it is because the traditional brakes on anti-social behavior are not only not working – the brakes themselves are non-functional and out of date.  If children exist in a new electronic world, then parents, educators, and religious leaders need to expand their moral precepts to include all the new opportunities for social dereliction of responsibility.

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