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The Medium Is The Message

It's Time To Stop Calling It Cyberbullying

"Long Island Teen's Suicide Linked to Cyberbullies" New York Daily News

"Police opening criminal investigation into the suicide death of a Buffalo, N.Y. 14-year old who was bullied online." ABC News

These headlines are meant to capture the destructive power of what is now called "cyberbullying", a power that continues to take more young lives each year. The act of "cyberbullying" holds a strange paradox for me; it is an act that can be devoid of any direct social connection and yet, because of the technology and social media sites it uses, it can be hyper-social. For an adolescent, this can be particularly damaging since it can permeate and distort every aspect of a teenager's social life, at a stage in life when peer relationships are so vitally important.

My last blog, "Bullying in the Female World" was about the covert form and style of female aggression that we now call social or relational aggression; it is a style that often causes more pain and damage than physical aggression. Today's blog presents the argument that the use of the Internet, cell phones and social network sites to harass, intimidate and humiliate a victim requires a label that more fully captures this destructive power, particularly since "cyberbullying" takes the covert and hidden to a much higher destructive level and causes even more pain and damage. (Note: For purposes of clarity, I'll continue to use the term in quotes.)

The title, The Medium is the Message, is my way of capturing the essential argument of this blog, namely that "cyberbullying" should not just be defined and understood by the words used to explain it -- i.e. aggression via the Internet. Included in its meaning must be the power of the aggressive content (what the words say, or the image depicts) further enhanced by the power of the various media available to conveying the content - the Internet, email, cell phones, Facebook, and Twitter - all of which then alters and determines the actual psychological and social experiencing of the meaning of the communication.

The phrase, "the medium is the message", was first coined by Marshall McCluhan, an early observer and prophetic critic of the emerging technologies of the early 1960's. (Black and white television was just beginning to gain some headway and personal computers had another two decades to begin to make an impact.) What he proposed was that the medium -- how a communication is conveyed - can be more important than its content; that the characteristics of the medium itself can dramatically change the meaning and experience of the communication. In other words, what we say (the content) as well as how we say it (how it is conveyed) determines its actual meaning. I still remember the old game of how to say the same three words and have three different meanings: "I love you." or "I love you." or "I love you?" (Try sounding it out by emphasizing the underlined words and you'll get different meanings.)

Aggression was, until fairly recently, the domain of the male and "bullying" was synonymous with a young male who was physically aggressive. The word "bully" is usually associated with male actions, not female ones. Social or relational aggression -- ignoring, teasing, gossiping, excluding, secrets, backstabbing, and rumor spreading -- now associated with the female, stayed under the radar of study, with the aggressive behavior often wrapped in a package seen as harmless, or just a "girl thing". What was most damaging was turning the victim into a social "undesirable" and that the covert nature of the aggression left the victim with no forum to refute the accusations.

"Cyberbullying" takes the covert and hidden even further, allowing the perpetrator a greater opportunity to remain anonymous, leaving the victim even less of a chance to refute or avoid the damage of the accusations. As mentioned, the term has generally been defined as using the power of the Internet - emails, chat rooms, instant messaging and social networking sites, as well as cell phones -- to send or post text or images meant to hurt, embarrass and humiliate another person. It can include threats, harassment, stalking, impersonation, trickery and exclusion. Both perpetrators and victims can be male or female and are usually older adolescents. In an interesting twist, when adults perpetrate similar aggressive behavior using the Internet, it is generally called cyberstalking.

When bullying was limited to physical or social aggression between perpetrator and victim, there usually was some direct contact between them, although it was limited to shared meeting places, like school or clubs. A safe haven would be any place that would offer an environment free of one's peers, i.e. home. The special aspect of "cyberbullying" that is particularly damaging for a young person is the void of a safe haven away from it; for as long as a young person has a cell phone and Internet access, the borderless nature of cyber communications permeates all spaces he or she exists within, with the negative messages continuing to bombard the psyche.

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times (September 23, 2011) the authors, both researchers, address the issue of bullying and the recent suicide of a 14-year-old teenager due to "cyberbullying". They write that
"In their rush to find a solution, adults are failing to recognize how their conversations about bullying are often misaligned with youth narratives."
They report that teenagers tend to minimize the importance, negative and sometimes fatal effects of bullying by limiting it to elementary school or labeling it as "just drama". The authors continue: "At first, we thought drama was simply an umbrella term, referring to varying forms of bullying. We thought teenagers viewed bullying as a form of drama. But we realized the two are quite distinct. Drama was not a show for us, but rather a protective mechanism for them. Teenagers say drama when they want to diminish the importance of something." They argue that adult language that diminishes teenagers' sense of power is experienced as disempowering, resulting in their feeling weak and vulnerable. They conclude that "Antibullying efforts cannot be successful if they make teenagers feel victimized without providing them the support to go from a position of victimization to one of empowerment."

Therein lies the dilemma. The key question this blog raises is:

What language or phrase can be used, directed towards adults, that describes the destructive power of "cyberbullying" in order to motivate them to provide appropriately effective preventive and supportive programs for teenagers and, at the same time, be language congruent with the need of the teenager to deny the destructive and diminishing effects of cyber aggression?

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever including offering more information on cyber aggression, a greater understanding of why someone becomes an aggressor and strategies that can play a part in lessening its power. Hope you'll continue to join me on this journey. And hope your interactions are free of any and all aggression.