The Drama Over Bullying: What's in a Word?
In this series, Flyby Staff Writer Olivia M. Munk identifies, dissects, and discusses ideas, articles, and opinions found in popular media and popular culture. She's here to inform you and to make you think—about what's out there, what it means to us, and what it might mean for you.
WHAT IT IS
In 2010, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate shared a video over the internet of his romantic encounters with another man; 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself after being tormented online by girls from her high school; most recently, Rehtaeh Parsons attempted suicide and died several days later after her peers shared images of her rape.
Kids can be cruel—and it's clear that the newest technology can enable them to be even crueler. With the advent of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, not to mention instant picture messaging over cell phones, even the briefest of debaucherous acts become immediately immortalized. Using the internet to bully peers, aptly called "cyberbullying," has become an increasingly frequent phenomenon in recent years.
A recent op-ed in the New York Times, however, suggests that we're being overzealous in our definition of "bullying." The piece's author, Emily Bazelon, argues: "The word is being overused—expanding, accordionlike, to encompass both appalling violence or harassment and a few mean words." Is it possible to say, however, that "a few mean words" does not constitute bullying when these very words—or images, or videos—can and do drive some to take their own lives?
Although social media has its obvious benefits, it is just as obvious to most that whatever these kids are doing, bullying or not, something must be done to prevent teenagers from being tormented by their peers to the point of suicide. The question is: What?
WHY IT CAUGHT OUR ATTENTION
Everyone's seen the typical teenage "mean girl" comedy—there's "Mean Girls," for starters, which depicts even lesser evils than the homicidal adolescents in "Heathers," and then there's every John Hughes movie portraying the hell that is high school. "Drama," as girls tend to dub conflict in school, is seemingly unavoidable in a world of proms, cliques, and anthropologically divided cafeterias. Bazelon cites a 2011 study by Alice E. Marwick and danah boyd in which they "argue that the emic use of 'drama' allows teens to distance themselves from practices which adults may conceptualize as bullying." Bazelon believes that when school-aged children engage in online altercations, the term "bullying" is thrown around too readily. "Drama," in high school and college jargon, arouses a sense of girlish pettiness; bullying, until the phenomenon of cyberbullying, brought about an image of a burly kid on the schoolyard who stole your lunch money. But in tragic situations such as the recent passing of Rehtaeh Parsons, is the term "bullying" severe enough?
In an age where nothing's official until it's plastered onto your Facebook profile and anyone can document anything with a snap of their iPhone, virtually any minor transgression may end up resulting in a tense situation for the most unsuspecting of people. Our online personas have become virtual representations of who we are as people: Anyone with Wi-Fi access can see where we're from, what we do, where we go, and whom we're friends with, all in just a few clicks. A survey from last year showed that 70% of employers decided to not hire a candidate based on "something found out about her online"; in 2008, 10% of college admissions officers admitted to peeking at profiles when making admissions decisions, and 38% of those officers said their snooping negatively impacted applicants.
This heightening dependency on online identities makes cyberbullying all the more scary. According to dosomething.org, 43% of kids have been victim to some form of cyberbullying at some point. And teen suicides are coming to be associated with this kind of bullying more and more: A report from 2012 stated that out of 41 teenage suicides in Canada, the UK, and the US, 78% of the victims experienced bullying both online and in person, with 17% experiencing cyberbullying alone.
Cyberbullying is not some far-removed phenomenon that happens to teenagers somewhere else. It's all around us, and more friends and acquaintances than we think may have felt its effects. With social media taking up more and more time in our lives, there's a greater chance that it will happen to us. Whether it's petty drama or not, bullying deserves to be taken seriously. Since social hierarchy is so crucial among teenagers, even the most minor of online altercations can be devastating. With research that proves that teens' very lives are at stake, we simply can't take chances by dichotomizing the malicious actions teenagers take against one another. If someone engages in online "drama," and it is labeled as such rather than being called cyberbullying, they are likely to get away with it and may go on to commit even more damaging acts in the future. A bully is a bully, no matter how you look at him, or at her.
Whether it's online, in person, mildly dramatic, or exceedingly cruel, bullying is not OK. If even one life is saved by continuing to add negative connotations to the word "bullying," then there is no harm done in "overusing" it. Anyone who has attended high school will tell you about the horror and humiliation that one can feel in the face of social strife; nowadays, with the permanency of the Internet, it can feel like such problems may literally never go away, but will instead follow you forever and be visible to anyone you meet. Emily Bazelon says that "bullying is a problem we can and should address. But not if we're wrongly led to believe that it's everything and everywhere." Most—if not all—victims of cyberbullying would likely counter Bazelon's argument, pointing out that the object of their torment is at the fingertips of any iPhone user, and that the impact goes beyond mere "drama." Suicides like Rehtaeh Parsons' are evidence enough that bullying is a major problem and should not be trivialized. Thus, how it is being addressed is something that must be constantly evaluated, especially as new methods of social interaction are created, and ultimately, abused.