This week’s focus in my graduate coursework on digital citizenship has been particularly heartbreaking, as it has involved looking at how some people are able to take some the greatest tools for communication and information-sharing the world has ever known and, rather than use them for personal and societal growth, twist them into methods for tormenting others.
Cyberbullying, the act of deliberately harassing or harming others through the use of electronic devices, is a problem; recent data suggest that more than a third of U.S. students from ages 12-17 have been cyberbullied in their lifetime (Patchin 2019). This online bullying can take many forms, from the relatively simple act of posting mean comments about someone to the far more troubling instances of sharing victims’ confidential information and photos or even making online death threats. As schools try to keep up with changing technology and help students be safe in a digital world that is both ever-expanding in scope and ever-shrinking to fit in their pockets, questions about how to deal with cyberbullying and its effects are constantly in mind.
One of the overarching issues that appear when examining cyberbullying is a lack of empathy. A common feature of these attacks is that they often come from anonymous sources. Many researchers have theorized that bullies are emboldened by the perceived anonymity of the digital environment to do and say things they would not do if they thought they could be identified (even though there is rarely any such thing as true anonymity in the digital environment). While much has been made of the fact that so-called digital natives do not distinguish between online and offline social environments the way older people do, the fact remains that the two environments do have differences, and it is much easier for people in a digital environment to lose sight of the humanity of those they interact with online—saying hurtful things to someone over text message elicits a less immediately detectable emotional response than saying the same things directly to them in person.
Hinduja and Patchin (2015) refer to this loss of self-regulation and awareness as deindividuation, and I believe it is both a significant factor contributing to cyberbullying and a potential avenue of addressing the problem. Students, like most people, learn best when they can relate information to their own life experience; educational activities that help students imagine themselves in a cyberbullying situation and guide them in imagining how they would react to certain circumstances could prove very useful in developing empathy and combating the deindividuation that contribute to cyberbullying. When we see ourselves in others and others in ourselves, it is much simpler to then reach the conclusion that we should treat others the way we wish to be treated. This is a linchpin of good citizenship, whether digital or any other kind.
Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. W. (2015). Bullying beyond the schoolyard: Preventing and responding to cyberbullying (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Patchin, J. W. (2019, July 9). 2019 Cyberbullying data [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://cyberbullying.org/2019-cyberbullying-data