When I first started seeing an A.P. press release circulating, titled 56% of Teens have been Bullied Online, my first thought was how on earth can the bullied outnumber the bullies? I had a feeling the definition of bullying had changed since I was a youth. So I read the release and the source report, which is a joint venture of the Associated Press and MTV. First, here's the presser, which is being published all over the web on tech and news sites, like Mashable.
There’s a reason cyberbullying prevention supporters range from Justin Bieber to Barack Obama: It’s a problem that directly affects more than half of American youth.
An Associated Press – MTV poll released Tuesday asked 1,355 youth between the ages of 14 and 24 about the role online abuse plays in their lives. Fifty-six percent responded they have been the target of some type of online harassment.
Bullying isn’t the only detrimental digital behavior prevalent among today’s youth. Fifteen percent of the young people surveyed say they have sent nude photos or videos of themselves, while 21% say they have received nude photos or videos from others. About half of those involved say they felt pressured to do so. Some form of digital dating abuse — including checking in multiple times a day, reading messages without permission, pressuring others to respond to messages or spreading rumors — was also reported by 41% of respondents who were in relationships.
Online abuse, sexting and digital dating abuse were all slightly more prevalent in 2011 than they were in a similar survey conducted in 2009.
But the good news is teens appear to be gaining awareness about potential consequences of sharing information online. Sexts to people who respondents only know online dropped 19%, respondents who thought the information they post online could get them in trouble with a boss jumped 14% and respondents who said information they post online could come back to hurt them increased 5%.
OK, well, technically Justin Beiber isn't American (he's Canadian), and many 14-24 year olds aren't actually "teens." Also, I'm a little annoyed at the distinction being made between "regular bullying" and "cyber bullying," as if a bund of adults are still trying to decide if the they should allow their kids to use a computer, or if the internet is just too dangerous for your average 14-24 year old. But let's try to stick to the main point, which is the fact that kids are getting bullied. I know this because it's really hard to watch the news for an entire hour without hearing at least one report about someone getting bullied, and how we need to change our way of life to stop it.
In spite of my tone on this, bullying really is a serious topic for me. My brother and I moved a lot when we were kids, and we had to deal with bullies at the beginning of school a few times. Back in those days, bullying involved fights and blood and scapes and bruises (or worse), and kids ganging up on other kids - scary stuff. By the time I got to high school that stuff was still happening with the boys, but the bullying I encountered as a girl still usually had more to do with "catty" and "mean girl" type behavior, which was not as dangerous physically, but was very upsetting mentally and emotionally. A few of my friends and I had to deal with it on a personal level a few times, and it's no laughing matter. But we learned from the experience. We learned how to take care of our friends, and how to step in and defend the weak if they were being abused. We learned how to treat people (and how not to). We learned how to stand up for ourselves. It was part of the growing up process. Our parents and grandparents all had stories about class bullies. The behavior is not new.
But now we have "cyber bullying," and we're told it's a growing problem. Let's look at some examples of cyber-bullying, so we can know what we're supposed to look out for. For one thing, we're now calling it "digital abuse." OK. According to the report:
Some of the most frequent forms of digital harassment include: people writing things online that aren’t true (26%), people writing things online that are mean (24%) and someone forwarding an IM or message that was intended to stay private (20%).
That last part has to do with kids sending photos of themselves without clothes on to a boyfriend or girlfriend who shares said (private) photos publicly on a social network. When I lived at home with my parents, if I had been caught using my camera to TAKE a photo of myself without clothing (never mind giving that photo to anyone), my hind-end would still be sore. Back then, the kids that wanted to do this had to use Polaroids, and those photos hard to copy, and were pretty easy to destroy. Fortunately, according to the report, more and more young people are understanding the eternal nature of an online photo.
Still, I would have a hard time classifying the above behaviors as true "bullying," in most cases. Kids have been passing around rumors and saying mean things to each other as long as there have been kids. It's what they do. It's part of growing up. And the so-called "sexting" thing is something young people really do to themselves in most cases. The majority of the photos in these so-called "sexting" incidences were taken with the full knowledge and consent of the subject.
The report also covers "digital discrimination," which as I understand it differs from "discrimination," only in the fact that it happens online. Once again, according to the report:
One in two regularly observes people use discriminatory language in social media. The groups most frequently discriminated against are: overweight (54%); LGB (51%); African-American (45%); women (44%); and immigrants (35%).
Doesn't that pretty much cover most of the population? Everyone except skinny white straight American males who are U.S. citizens? There's some irony in that, I suppose, because that was the target demographic in those Charles Atlas ads from a few decades ago that were supposed to help guys who were being bullied. The larger question here is when do we stop referring to bad behavior as "bullying," and just start calling it bad behavior? And is it really different if it's happening online vs. if it's happening in person?
I do think it's important to make that distinction, because there really and truly are young people out there whose lives are being ruined by bullies. If we trivialize the bullying phenomenon by referring to every bad behavior from name-calling to spreading rumors to peeping-tom incidents as "bullying," the real cries for help may get lost in the noise.