Cyberbullying Frays the Social Fabric, Cyberkindness Threads It

Scott Douglas Jacobsen:  In some recent research, you note the unfortunate global occurrence of bullying.  In particular, the existence of cyberbullying.  For readers, can you define cyberbullying?  What negative psychological, emotional, and physical consequences arise from cyberbullying for the victims and the perpetrators?

Professor Wanda Cassidy: ‘Cyberbullying’ is bullying through online sources such as smart phones, Facebook, e-mail, blogs or chat rooms, or any of the various technological tools at our disposal.  It involves sending harmful, derogatory, harassing, negative, sometimes repulsive – even sexual, messages or images to somebody with the intent to harm or hurt them. The impact is often quite devastating.  It can cause sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, fear, inability to concentrate, and sometimes leads to suicidal thoughts. Cyberbullying is different from face-to-face bullying in that it can be anonymous: “Where is this coming?  A friend, an acquaintance, a stranger, someone I sit next to in class, why are they doing this to me?” People are so connected online.  They open their social networking sites and see a derogatory message from someone.  How do they deal with it? Oftentimes, they cannot get rid of the message, which results in them being bullied over and over again.

Research shows that cyberbullying can start as early as age 9 or 10, extending into adolescence and dying down somewhat by age 15 or 16.   In our current study we are looking at the extent of cyberbullying at the post-secondary level, among undergraduates and towards faculty members. We were surprised to learn that approximately 1/5 of undergraduate students at the 4 universities we studied had experiencing cyberbullying from another student, and approximately the same number of faculty members had been cyberbullied either by students and/or by colleagues. These messages can be hurtful—indeed devastating– at any age.

Jacobsen: Your conceptualization of ‘cyberkindness’ seems to me, in essence, digital civility, bringing civil discourse in the real world into the electronic media. 

Cassidy: Yes, I call the internet and other outlets for communication a ‘flat medium’, in that, they cannot convey facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice, and therefore the intent of a message may be misinterpreted. Further the sender does not see the impact a message might have on the recipient, such as they might see in face-to-face bullying. We have yet to learn more effective ways to communicate through technology.

Also, we have cyberbullying because bullying is present in the wider society, and too many are rewarded for their bullying behaviour. Politicians bully each other and sometimes seem to relish in the experience.  Countries bully each other, employers bully employees, corporations bully each other to get an edge in the market, and so on.

We need to look at what is being modelled by adults, since modelling is one of the most powerful teachers.  Young people learn not only from what they are told, but what they experience and see being modeled around them.

Jacobsen: What strategies can students employ individually and collectively to reduce the occurrence and harms of cyberbullying and bullying in general?  In addition, within your recent work, you discuss the development of “cyber-kindness” and an “ethic of care”.  For readers, what is the abridged definition of this terminology, and the practical application and outcome of them?

Cassidy: I began researching cyberbullying because I had done research on the ethic of care and the positive impact this philosophy had on students, teachers and the school culture. When I began to investigate cyberbullying, I did not want to deal with the negative alone. I wanted to look at the notion of “cyber-kindness” and the ways in which technology could be used to communicate positive, respectful and kind messages.  This notion of care is situated within the broader philosophical worldview of Nel Nodding’s and Carol Gilligan’s work – caring being a relational ethic.  Here caring is not a ‘fuzzy’ feeling, by rather showing empathy towards the other, understanding the needs of the other, and working in the other’s best interests.

Schools that embrace the ethic of care have less bullying and cyberbullying, because they focus on relationships, empathy and the understanding of others.  For example, a couple of years ago, we worked with a school where five grade 7 girls were actively cyberbullying each other with really nasty comments on a social networking site.  The principal, rather than suspending them, saw their leadership potential and re-directed the negative energy they had towards each other into working on productive projects at the school.  She met with them once a week and, as the discussions unfolded, they apologized to each other about the hurtful messages they had been sending. They stopped these negative interchanges, but more importantly, ended up contributing to the school, and influencing the culture of the whole school.  Their enthusiasm for doing positive things was infectious and spilled over to the other grades as well.

What this principal demonstrated is that it is important to address the root causes of cyberbullying, not just the symptoms (i.e. the behaviour).

Jacobsen: In a hypothetical perfect world with plenty of funding and time, and if guaranteed an answer, what single topic would you research?

Cassidy: Ways to create a kinder world, how do we change the ‘human being’ to become more respectful and kinder to one another? I am somewhat of a utopian in this regard.

Perhaps we can start by getting to know our neighbour, and by this, I mean getting to know others outside of our circle or enclave.  Entering into a dialogue, listening to others and learning from others.  A kinder world would be a more peaceful world and a happier world.

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