The White House takes on bullying

This afternoon at 12:20 pm, the White House put together a panel discussion on cyberbullying, which was available on Facebook through a live feed.  The event was hosted by Kal Penn (of Harold and Kumar go to White Castle) and attended by President Obama’s Domestic Policy Advisor Melody Barnes, Facebook Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan, author and teen behavior expert Rosalind Wiseman, and MTV Vice President of Public Affairs Jason Rzepka. Some of the points brought up by the users were very interesting, but, unfortunately poorly responded to.  The “experts” on this matter were – let’s just say – in need of more expertise in this matter.  Athinline is an initiative by MTV and as far as I know, is not really being spearheaded by any particular person.  I always thought it was a stand-alone website which is continuously maintained and is really there for PR purposes.  Although I like Wiseman’s work in the field of conflict resolution among teens, I’m not sure that it quite encapsulates what is going on in the online realm.  She’s beginning to familiarize herself with that domain.  As for Facebook’s Joe Sullivan, he said that “cyberbullying is traditional bullying, but, using technology.”

Barbara Coloroso, in her book “The Bully, The Bullied, and The Bystander,” states that bullying – in its traditional sense – has four markers.  These markers include an imbalance of power, and intent to harm, threat of further aggression, and, if the bullying escalates, terror.  She then breaks bullying down into verbal, physical, and relational bullying.[i] This is what school staff and administration, teachers, psychologists, and other prevention and intervention consultants have traditionally been taught about schoolyard bullying.  However, traditional means of prevention, intervention, and education will not serve to address, eliminate, raise awareness about, or prevent cyberbullying.

So, why doesn’t this translate into the online world?  For one, the imbalance of power is not always physically visible.  Is it always someone larger, heavier, older, cooler? I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  I think a lot of times with cyberbullying, it’s a wimpy, nerdy, insecure kid who goes on and harasses or makes websites anonymously to get back at her/his aggressor(s).  Furthermore, in cyberspace it doesn’t matter who’s taller and who has more power – sometimes it’s all about who can hack better – who’s more tech-savvy?  Sometimes the nerdy, techy ones do the hacking and bullying, and they are not necessarily the ones with the power.  Sometimes yes.  Sometimes the more physically or socially more powerful kids are doing the bullying (and might I add, adults, since this matter stretches far beyond “kids”).  Is there always an intent to harm?  Is there an intent to harm when they send the threats – or is the intent only to scare?  Is there an intent to harm when they’re sending insulting messages back and forth, or are they simply joking?  Some take it the wrong way, others don’t.  Some mean harm, others don’t.  Who’s to judge?  Who can judge online?  Or on mobile texts for that matter?  It’s very difficult to figure out the intent of written text or even posted videos or pictures.  It’s very subjective.  Is there a threat of further aggression?  Well let’s see, was there a threat of further aggression when they put up the Star Wars Kid‘s video? I think it took that one video to completely humiliate the dude.  I don’t think there needed to be a threat of further aggression for this to be considered a major case of cyberbullying.  This is now one of the most watched videos on the Internet and the guy in it is the object of ridicule.  So I rest my case, you can’t parallel traditional with cyber bullying literally.  Yet, it can be considered an extension. They are just not the same thing and they take on different forms, are expressed in different ways, and do not involve the same general characteristics and cannot be broken down the same way into bully-victim-bystander.  It’s not that simple, and I think this is something the White House, and whoever is working with the White House or working to prevent bullying and cyberbullying, should understand.

To view the first clip recorded by the Obamas, go to http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=10150148791745639&oid=125459124158601&comments

Anyway, schools seem really confused as to what constitutes cyberbullying – and they put physical locations on cyber activities.


[i] Coloroso, B. (2006). The bully, the bullied, and the bystander: From pre-school to high school – how parents and teachers can help break the cycle of violence. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishers.

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