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Media, Technology and Bullying: New Partners in Nastiness

by Mara Sapon-Shevin

Wideningthecircle When I was in middle-school, the way the “popular kids” tormented those of us who weren’t so lucky, was through something called “Slam Books.” A popular kid (it was usually a girl) would start a notebook with individual pages headed with the names of unpopular students. The book would be passed around to the other “popular” kids and they would take turns making nasty entries under the unpopular students’ names. Under Beth’s name, for example, they would write, “Ugly,” “Bad complexion,” “Stupid,” and “Slutty.”

There would be lots of snickering and giggling as the notebook was passed (not that unobstrusively) between the popular kids who were writing the nasty comments. Slam books were the source of public humiliation, and they made the lives of some of us miserable. It was never clear whether or not teachers were aware of what was going on, but I don’t remember any intervention at the time.

Now, however, we have entered the era of high technology, and the ways in which students torment one another are far more sophisticated. Cyberbullying is a growing and distressing phenomenon that has recently received extensive media attention.

According to Wikipedia (quoted Mar. 4, 2008):

Cyberbullying involves recurring or repeated harm willfully inflicted through the medium of electronic text. In order for it to be cyber-bullying, the intent must be to cause emotional distress, and there must be no legitimate purpose to the communication. Cyberbullying can be as simple as continuing to send e-mail to someone who has said they want no further contact with the sender, but it may also include threats,, sexual remarks, pejorative labels (i.e. hate speech). Cyber-bullies may disclose victims' personal data (e.g. real name or workplace/schools) at websites or forums, or may attempt to assume the identity of a victim for the purpose of publishing material in their name that defames or ridicules them. Some may post victims' photos, or victims' edited photos like defaming captions or pasting victims' faces on nude bodies.

Although the resulting tension and violence is evident within the school environment, many schools report that they are unable to respond because this behavior happens “out of school.” Characteristics of on-line technologies increase the boldness of cyber-bullies, particularly the ability to remain virtually anonymous, to use pseudonyms and to use texting rather than voice messages. Freed from some of the normal social consequences of cruel and abusive behavior, many people apparently find it easier to make damaging and painful comments.

What is distressing to me is not only that new technologies are now employed in order to hurt other people, but that other negative aspects of modern media have found their way into classrooms and schools.

In a story one student brought to me, for example, the teacher sat the students in rows, and each week, the students in each row voted a classmate off the row, as in the television show Survivor. The class members voted off the row had to sit in a separate section of the classroom labeled for “non-community members” and were further punished by curtailed privileges and second-class treatment by classmates and teachers.

While there is increasing concern by some about school violence, from bullying and harassment to the spate of school shootings, it is distressing that many people fail to see any connection between the violence reported by the media, the violence produced by the media (television shows that are all about exclusion, segregation, mockery and derision) and the negative interpersonal behavior we see in our community.

And it would be a mistake to believe that such negative interpersonal behavior is the exclusive province of the young. There is increased recognition of bullying in the workplace, and the use of email and web spaces to hurt people of all ages. We seem to be becoming a culture of increasing nastiness. I challenged my students the other day to identify a situation comedy that showed positive sibling relationships, for example, and they could not. They were, however, able to cite multiple examples of mockery, competitive meanness, derision and put-downs in the families portrayed on television.

I’m wondering what other connections people have seen between negative media and negative student behavior and ways new technologies have been used to hurt and damage? How do we begin discussions within schools about how we treat one another and the far-reaching consequences of enacting violence?  What role can the schools play in setting limits and norms regarding inter-personal behavior, even when those behaviors occur off school property and out of the direct supervision of teachers and school personnel? Most importantly, what would it take to change the increasing societal acceptance of hateful speech at all levels?

Mara Sapon-Shevin is a professor of education at Syracuse University and the author of Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms and Because We Can Change the World. She is a social justice activist working in the field of anti-racism, anti-homophobia and disability rights.