Define Cyberbullying

Naturally, long after blawgers have discussed the implications of the Tyler Clementi suicide to death, traditional media is finally getting around to giving the few minutes of thought that fit between commercial breaks.  The teasers speak to “How to stop cyberbullying,” or “The Plague of Cyberbullying.”  Shockingly, the substance begins with the premise that cyberbullying is bad and must be stopped.  Media savvy prosecutors are standing in line for their interview.*

Not one report or discussion that I’ve seen has considered the definition of cyberbullying.  As with most popular evils, it’s relegated to some vague wrong perpetrated by horrible people that does grave harm.  As seen with the calls for the prosecution of Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, for everything from hate crime to manslaughter, the discussion and anger is moving forward at warp speed despite the fact that no one seems to have a firm grasp on what this evil cyberbullying might be.

There are two very significant directions in which attempts at definition have gone, toward the conduct of the bully or the feelings of the victim.  The former has been described along the lines of:

the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior by an individual or group, that is intended to harm others.

The latter, focused on the sensibilities of the victim, defines cyberbullying as when a person:

is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or targeted by another child using the Internet, mobile phone, or other type of digital technology.

Clearly, a definition that focuses on the wrongful conduct is far more useful than one that concerns itself with the consequences.  Still, the mens rea component, intent to harm, leaves much to be desired.  Are hurt feelings “harm”?  How hurt must feelings be to constitute “harm”?  What about well-deserved hurt, such as the liar called out online, whose feelings are assuredly hurt but whose own conduct justified or caused the attack? And then, of course, there is the problem of people who are particularly sensitive or vulnerable, and are hurt by statements that wouldn’t normally bother others.

At stake in the need to define this suddenly ubiquitous term is both free speech and the ability to engage in the normal and necessary exchange of ideas.  A harsh reality is that we need to be able to communicate disagreement, even disdain, as part of ordinary discussion.  People disagree, and sometimes angrily, over issues.  Some are important and some trivial, but do we want to leave it to legislators, bereaved mothers or TV talking heads to decide the limits of appropriate communications?

In the blawgosphere, there have been calls to keep discussion “civil and respectful,” usually by those who prefer to set themelves up as the arbiters of propriety for the rest of us and prefer to shield their silly postings from harsh scrutiny.  Parents limit it to children.  Feminists want to make it a gender issue.  Based on the Clementi scenario, it’s now discussed in the context of sexual preference.  Of course, no one owns the problem, even though various groups try to seize it as their own.

The “cyber” aspect of the word obviously refers to the use of electronic devices as the delivery mechanism.  There is some debate on whether it includes text messages, pagers,  or just online activity.  As argued by Anil Dash, the addition of “cyber” before “bullying” is a diversion, a red herring intended to suggest that there’s a fault with electronic media that somehow gives rise to the problem, when it’s merely a new way to deliver an old problem.  

Dash contends that “the persistence of this descriptor demonstrates a consistent agenda focused on blaming these horrible displays of intolerance or inhuman unkindness on technology.”  He notes that in the past, bullying via telephone was never dubbed “telebullying.”  There may be some merit to the idea that putting the word “cyber” before anything virtual has become too fashionable, and tends to turn discussion away from the core problem and blame electronics for human foibles,

Dash’s position fails to account for a significant issue, that online behavior has an element of anonymity, a disconnection between act and consequence, that differs from face to face behavior.  People will post something online that they would never say to another person’s face.  Whether it’s the equivalent of the 98 pound weakling telling off the 230 pound strong man (or the other way around), or the mean teen ridiculing the unpopular teen, the communication strips away an element of humanity and immediate consequences.  No one is forced to look into the eyes of the person to whom the post is addressed.

As discussion of cyberbullying flourishes, and in anticipation of the legislation of new crimes deriving from both the use of electronic media and based upon tragic consequences, there is enormous risk that the current climate is going to do significant harm in the absence of a viable definition.  As the Clementi case shows, little thought or concern is given the nature of Ravi’s conduct due to the horrible (though possibly unrelated) outcome.  It’s long been clear that tragic outcomes drive the discussion, usually off a cliff.  At the same time, cries of cyberbullying have become the facile response of those seeking to avoid criticism or scrutiny.  

Nothing I’ve read thus far has provided a sufficiently clear and limited definition to make a discussion or legislation of cyberbullying work.  Even the lawprofs who should be focused on such mundane matters as definitions seem to gloss over this problem, assuming conduct to fit the bill without offering any rationale or limitations.  As the discussion continues in the absence of a definition, we become increasingly likely to see law and norms imposed by the villagers with their torches and pitchforks that irrationally constrain discussion in the name of protecting the children. 

I have no definition to offer that satisfies all the concerns, but there’s no doubt in my mind that we need one desperately.  In its absence, expect to hear screams of cyberbullying everywhere, and laws that prohibit any communication that hurts someone else’s feelings.  Where should the line be drawn?

*  A story in Newsday, which unfortunately is hidden behind a paywall, gave rise to my concerns.

Now, in an attempt to prevent abusive online activity and educate kids and parents, Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice is launching a program called “STOP then Send” to go into schools and spread the word about the dangers of cyberbullying, “sexting,” Internet predators and sharing their personal information on the Internet. The program includes videos featuring teens discussing their own ordeals.

Rice, who was trounced in her attempt to become New York Attorney General, has seized upon the public attention to teach our children about cyberbullying.  So what exactly does she plan to teach?

Lag in Internet privacy laws

Donnelly said that laws on the books often do not fit the misdeeds children commit on the Internet. For example, the charge against the Nassau County teenager – falsifying business records – may seem odd, but there was no better choice in the state penal code.

“Our laws haven’t caught up to what’s happening in our culture yet,” noted the prosecutor, saying she much prefers educating children before they make mistakes.

This is what we have to anticipate, what our children are going to be taught, if neglected.  Of particular note, and a specialty of Rice, is the misuse of law because “there was no better choice.”  As much as this story is local, this problem is clearly national and we would be insane to leave it to others to define the problem at a time when emotion runs high and reason is under indictment.

5 thoughts on “Define Cyberbullying

  1. SHG

    No, Rice doesn’t view the law as a constraining factor.  And so she’s going to teach the children.  Wonderful.

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