Cyberbullying Is Not The Same Thing As Real World Bullying, Okay?

As Cajun noted yesterday, the state of New York is trying to strip the Internet of its anonymity to prevent cyberbullying, you know, because it’s very important that teenagers limit saying cruel, thoughtless, awful things to each other’s faces instead of doing it anonymously on the Internet.

It ties into this whole bullying social concern that I touched on a few weeks ago: I’m not trying to dismiss concern over bullying or teenage suicides, although buying a movie ticket and saying you’re concerned about it means less than nothing unless you actually do something, and I’m not talking about recording a YouTube video.

But I can speak to the difference between the coordinated real-life harassment some people experience and people saying mean things on the Internet, and how different they are. And they are different — profoundly so.

Seriously, none of this coordinated harassment crap is new. People call it obscure, but it isn’t: whisper campaigns against kids who’ve drawn the ire of the mob happen in every high school — perhaps you just didn’t notice.

I know because I went through it back in the ’90s.

I was the new kid for a good chunk of my time in high school, and I was a six-foot-tall nerd who hated sports and didn’t hide the lofty perception I had of my own intelligence (in other words, I was obnoxious, which didn’t help). I never had to deal with violence directed towards my person, but I had to deal with a lot of crap otherwise. To this day, there are people I went to high school with absolutely convinced I’m a closeted homosexual and drug addict.

My parents cared, my school administrators and teachers cared, but the parents of the kids responsible didn’t. So it didn’t stop. There was no way to stop it, because the parents either didn’t see the problem or refused to accept there was one, and there was just no way to make them take responsibility. And keep in mind, this is without any physical violence. I can count the number of actual fights I got in in high school on one finger.

Cyberbullying is different. Cyberbullying you can turn off: you can make your profile private, you can take screenshots to use as documentation, or you can simply turn off the monitor and step away.

I can’t emphasize what a difference this is: if you’re surrounded by people who you think hate you in real life, it’s really hard to go somewhere you feel like they don’t. If you’re surrounded by people who hate you on the Internet, you can just essentially erase them from your online life, or go somewhere they can’t find you by typing in a string of characters in a window.

Bullying is about making other people feel powerless, and the fact of the matter is, on the Internet, you have way more power than in person. You control where you go, what you do, and most importantly, who you are. That’s what makes the Internet great and horrible at the same time. Taking away controlling who you are, which is what stripping the anonymity from the Internet would do, is not going to magically improve things.

Does this mean we shouldn’t care about people being awful to each other on the Internet? No, we should, although we should temper that with the understanding that not everything in our lives is as important to others as it is to us, and try to sort out who’s being a douche from who’s just being honest.

So, is there a solution here? Yes. But it will never be implemented.

Behind every bully, cyber or otherwise, is more than likely a crappy parent. Maybe they’re abusing their kids. Maybe they’re brushing off their kid’s behavior as “hijinks.” But, speaking from personal experience, these people will never accept their kid is an a-hole because it means that they, the parent, screwed up — and that is just not acceptable, because they are perfect and therefore their crotchfruit are perfect by proxy.

So, how to solve this? First of all, actually fund social workers. Seriously, these people don’t have the funding to deal with their case load. Give them the money to do their jobs and take kids out of abusive homes. That will solve some of the problem right there.

Secondly, pass a law that makes the parent financially accountable for the bully’s behavior. If the school nurse has to patch a kid up after he’s been beaten and tossed in a dumpster, the kid responsible goes home with a letter and a bill that shows up on your credit report. If a teacher has to spend an hour helping a girl weeping inconsolably in a toilet stall because everybody thinks she’s a pregnant slut, everybody who spreads the rumor goes home with a ticket. And if they’re not paid, you don’t graduate.

Seriously, this could work. Parents will brush off notes from the school as minor problems some administrator is fussing over pointlessly or “he said she said” —  ask any teacher. Being told their kid has racked up fines that they, the parents, have to pay will get the point across a lot faster.

Granted, this is roughly as Constitutional as stripping the anonymity from the Internet (that is, not at all). There’s also no legislative will, here, either: kids don’t vote, parents do, and asking a parent to admit their child is not perfect is political suicide.

But if you really want to solve the problem, if you really want to help people and stop bullying, you have to make the parents care. And unfortunately, unless you hit them in the wallet, they won’t.

(Image courtesy Miss Blackflag on Flickr)