Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cyberaggression and Gender (Part II)

I've been asked how gender plays into this topic of cyberbullying in a few interviews now, and oddly enough, I've surprised myself at how little I've even considered it since the issue is so universal. It's also a complicated issue for me because I feel like even connecting cyberbullying (or other aspects of cyberaggression and cyberharassment -- which you can read about in the previous post about the panel with Sen. Amy Klobuchar last week) to gender can perpetuate some unfair and even harmful gender stereotypes.

So, first we should look at the facts. Amanda Lenhart has done an amazing job of collecting and disseminating some very interesting, telling research about young people and their use of interactive media for many years for The Pew Internet and American Life project; Amanda and I are former classmates (a year or so apart) from Georgetown University's Communication, Culture and Technology program -- she's incredibly smart and savvy -- and I think Pew Research is among the best out there, so I see this data as excellent and reliable (and you can check it out in its entirety here). Over a third of adolescents in this country have reported that they have been harassed online -- and this can include bullying, having material forwarded or posted without permission, and a number of other harassing behaviors that has to do with one or more students exerting power in a negative way over other students. According to this same, data more girls than boys report having been harassed in some way online. No data was available that broke down sexual orientation, but the patterns and anecdotal definitely show that LGBT kids (or those who are perceived to be LGBT) also are highly victimized online.

This is not terribly surprising if you consider that a lot of the online harassment is actually sexual harassment, which is largely male to female, according to both statistics and anecdotal evidence.

However, I start getting annoyed when there is an assumption that girls are bullied more because "girls are mean" and "girls are conniving" and "girls are backbiting" because "that's just how girls are with each other." My own research has shown that indeed, girls can be violent and they can partake in bullying, but to fall back on these tropes as if they're common knowledge both simplifies and trivializes a very serious problem. It shrugs it off, absolving violent or harmful behavior in some ways by chalking it up to a gender stereotype.

And boys bully boys, too. This often gets lost in the argument in cyberbullying, for some reason, even though it looks really obvious typed on the page here. Americans can get so caught up in the mainstream media's over-hyping of girl fighting -- particularly when it's "caught on tape" and uploaded to YouTube so TV stations can air footage repeatedly -- that it just stokes the fire of the mean girl stereotype. I suppose it's sensational footage -- sensational storytelling -- because of both the abhorrent nature of the story ("girls are supposed to be nice and well-bred" -- an old-school stereotype but it still holds more true than people think) and the icky sexualization part of it ("girl on girl action" -- like porn). At least that's my take on why these stories always seem to get covered instead of the stories about boys who upload their fights and bullying incidents to YouTube.

That's my take. My personal solution is pretty simple. We need to pay more attention to teaching young people media literacy and new media literacy pretty early on. Explain that when you post something on Facebook meant to harm somebody else that the effect is immediate and incredibly broad, and it can easily encourage kind of a "piling on" effect (consider the "Like" button). We should teach them to stop this kind of behavior. You can even report it to Facebook and the bully will be threatened with losing their account for life -- which really is a pretty serious punishment. More importantly, I'd love to see more discussions about good ol' fashioned civility. We live in loud angry times, and the computer screen makes it so easy to just get online and be as loud and angry as you want in writing without thinking much about the people who you affect on the other side of the computer screen. I actually have a few sentences in every one of my college syllabi about civility and discuss what it means to share within a civil classroom or online forum, and I think that this small acknowledgment -- this setting of ground rules -- goes a long way.


M-Powered Solutions said...

It was a great conversation and I appreciated your point highlighting the need for greater media literacy with children and with parents. I wish there would be a follow up!

Shayla Thiel-Stern said...

I agree. One of the things that I mentioned (not in my written remarks) was that it's so easy to let an issue like this get into the media spotlight, discuss it to death for a week and then forget all about it! We need to be careful of that because this is an issue that is not going away.