What is Cyberbullying Anyways?

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

We’ve been hearing a lot about “cyberbullying” lately. Cases like the Lori Drew incident have got politicians and teachers all over looking to pass vague new rules and laws (or twist existing ones) to punish behavior they feel is wrong. The problem is, no one really seems to be able to define the term, at least not in a way that really distinguishes it from simply being a jerk online, so it’s encouraging to see a paper from a vice president of Stetson University, Darby Dickerson, calling on educators to slow down and define cyberbullying before creating policies about it, though I’m not sure she gets to the heart of the issue. Dickerson observes that people have been using the term often and easily, without any real consensus on what it includes and what it doesn’t. In the absence of a generally accepted scholarly or legal definition, she calls on universities to take four steps before creating a cyberbullying policy:

  1. consider the types of activity that might be included within the term,
  2. consider the type of harm,
  3. consider the level of intent required by the offender,
  4. determine the extent that it will address off-campus conduct.

This is good advice and Dickerson does a pretty good job of outlining the concerns. She notes that conduct such as “cyberstalking” or “cyberthreats” might be included, while issues of fraud probably shouldn’t be, arguing that “not all misconduct that occurs online should be labelled as cyberbullying.” She cautions institutions to remember “free speech and related constitutional concerns.” She’s skeptical of extending the term to include simply being a jerk online, and he questions labeling students as cyberbullies who don’t display real malice or hostility. She also raises lots of important questions about what it means to be “off-campus” in cyberspace. Dickerson concludes by urging institutions to clearly define the term before enacting policies, highlighting many important questions that must be answered first.

Yet… Dickerson ignores one major consideration: why have a separate policy for cyberbullying anyway? It seems to me that in order to consider these issues sanely, we need to stop pretending they’re separate things simply because we apply a “cyber” prefix to them. What’s a “cyberthreat?” How is that different from a threat in general? Is a “cyberthreat” just a threat made online? What if it’s made with a cell phone instead? What about a plain old telephone? Yes, the medium must be considered (“you’re going to die” is different when shouted in a playground than written in letters cut out of a magazine…), but do we create separate terms or policies for each medium? We do often need to re-examine our laws and policies in the face of new technologies, but it rarely makes sense to have separate “cyberpolicies” instead of ensuring that existing policies are adapted to handle the new technologies. Why not ensure that existing harassment policies cover real harassment that occurs online instead of creating a new “cyberharassment” policy? Without a consideration of the difference between cyberbullying and bullying in general at the heart of this discussion, people run the risk of spending their energy blaming the technology and grandstanding, creating new policies with troubling unintended consequences rather than addressing the real issue, which often may well just be plain old bullying in a new context. The new context can certainly present new challenges that might warrant policy changes, but people should be careful not to get distracted from the issue of bullying just because it has “cyber” tacked onto the front.

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