There's No Such Thing as "Cyberbullying"

For more than a decade, an intellectually bankrupt habit of maligning new media has reared its head in traditional media outlets, perpetuating a false impression of technology being bad for society. Worse, this tendency masks the actual social ills that are to blame for these awful actions, by creating the facade that technology is to blame when it is more likely the fault of racism, homophobia, classism, or intolerance.

Some recent examples:

  • The Associated Press wrote about the suicide of Tyler Clementi after a dormroom hookup of his was broadcast by some of his acquaintances. Geoff Mulvihill and Samantha Henry wrote:

The Associated Press found at least 12 cases in the U.S. since 2003 in which children and young adults between 11 and 18 killed themselves after falling victim to some form of “cyberbullying” — teasing, harassing or intimidating with pictures or words distributed online or via text message.

  • The New York Times extends the demonization even further, with a six-person debate on cyberbullying that never once questions the rhetorical premise of the word “cyberbullying” itself. Searching the New York Times archive generates no results for “bibliobullying” or even “telebullying”, despite their own definition of “cyberbullying” including text messages sent from phones.

This isn’t new territory; danah boyd covered the dishonesty of this term thoroughly on her own blog years ago. But the persistence of this descriptor demonstrates a consistent agenda focused on blaming these horrible displays of intolerance or inhuman unkindess on technology.

When I had my own nose broken by a bully who assaulted me when I was in the seventh grade, it took me some time to figure out the source of his enmity, since the attacker was a guy I barely knew. As it turned out, he had misheard a phone conversation that several kids had conference called in to. I’ve either forgotten or never knew most of the details of what the conversation was about, but at no time did the school administrators refer to the incident as telebullying, or blame the phone for causing it. They also didn’t blame the locker that my nose was smashed in to, presumably because school lockers are a technology of sufficient vintage as to be immune from idiotic epithets.

Why They Made Up This Word

It’s important to note that blaming technology for horrendous, violent displays of homophobia or racism or simple meanness lets adults like parents and teachers absolve themselves of the responsibility to raise kids free from these evils. By creating language like “cyberbullying”, they abdicate their own role in the hateful actions, and blame the (presumably mysterious and unknowable) new technologies that their kids use for these awful situations. Somehow, when I was frequently cross-dressing or wearing makeup or identifying as queer as a high schooler, I was still able to be threatened with violence, even though my tormentors had no mobile phones or laptop computers. (I will point out, for nerd cred, that I was the first person in my school to bring a mobile phone or laptop to class.)

I was thinking of this obliquely when Jose Antonio Vargas asked me a bit about my perspective on Hollywood’s take on social media as exemplified by the new Facebook film. Despite my own misgivings about many of Facebook’s social impacts, I still think old media as exemplified by the Associated Press and the film industry has a concerted agenda to demonize new media and social media, and Facebook and its creators bear the brunt of that in The Social Network. There’s also the ugly reality that coining bullshit words like “cyberbullying” will sell papers or page views. I put it more broadly in the Huffington Post piece:

The movie is written in the abstract, based on what they feel Facebook, and the social Web, represent. It’s exoticism. It’s the 1940s, when you had a white actor in yellow-face play a Chinese character, you know? Those foreigners talk like this, and it’s why they’re inscrutable and evil.

The truth of it is, calling the cruelty that kids show to one another, based on race or gender identity or class or any other imaginary difference, by a name like “cyberbullying” is a cop-out. It’s a group of parents, school administrators and lazy reporters working together to shirk their own responsibility for the meanspirited, hateful, incomprehensible things their own kids do.

And it’s a myth. There’s no such thing as cyberbullying. There’s only the cruelty in all of us, and the cowardice of making words to hide from it.