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.

Cyberaggression Panel with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Part I)

OK, part of this post is going to be a re-hash from my other blog about New Media and Youth, and part of it is going to address what gender has to do with cyberbullying and "cyberaggression" in general. Here's Part I, which is a reprint:

I had the distinct honor of being asked to serve as a panelist for an event sponsored and moderated by Minnesota's own Senator Amy Klobuchar (editorial note: I've always been a fan, and now that I've met her in person, I'm an even bigger fan) last week at Augsburg College. The local media covered it fairly nicely, and it was an amazing opportunity for me to meet some people who have a true passion for battling cyberaggression (which covers a lot, by the way -- online spying and surveillance, cyberbullying, cyberharassment, misrepresentation online, etc.). In addition to the Senator, the panel included Nikki Jackson Colaco, Public Policy Manager of Facebook;
Detective Brian Hill, computer forensics investigator with the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office;and Lynn Miland, of Northfield, the parent of a child who was bullied and now a parent advocate with the National Center for Bullying Prevention, which is affiliated with Minnesota-based PACER Center, a national center that champions children with disabilities. (Lynn's story about her daughter was particularly touching and troubling, and I was really happy she was able to do the panel and tell her story.)

The experience was mostly good. Mostly. Maybe I'm being hypersensitive as a journalism professor (specifically one who just taught a lesson in good, ethical headline-writing in class this morning), but The Star-Tribune literally seized upon one fragment of one of my sentences about defriending and blocking falling under the category of cyberbullying -- I assume because they found it to be ridiculous, and I agree it sounds ridiculous without the context of the rest of the remarks. The headline and story ran like this:

'Defriending' latest form of adolescent cyberbullying

Anyway, obviously, there's more to it. :-)

Here are a few of the other stories about the panel:

Q&A With Parents and Experts About Cyberbullying from Fox9-Twin Cities

Cyberbullying Highlighted at Augsburg Event from KARE11


Klobuchar, panel address changing face of harassment online
from The Minnesota Daily

And if you're interested, here are my basic remarks. I went a little bit off the cuff and edited out a few things that had already been said before it was my turn to talk, but this is the gist.

Notes for Cyberbully Panel with Sen. Klobuchar

In a national survey conducted with about 3000 teens over a three-year time period, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 93 percent of adolescents age 12-17 surveyed go online, and 63 percent of those go online at least once daily – most of them from home, though a large number are also able to access the internet from their mobile phone, and at school or a library.

32 percent of adolescents report that they have been the victim of online harassment – from having an embarrassing photo posted of them on a social networking site without their consent, forwarding an email or text or instant message without their consent, or had a rumor spread about them online. In my own research, young teens reported instances of just being shut out completely by their peers – from being de-friended on a massive scale on Facebook to being deleted from a friend list on Instant Messaging, which is almost as devastating for many of them.

So, over a third of our adolescents have reported behavior like this, which is a huge number, but let’s face it. Even 1 percent is too high a number of kids reporting being victimized by bullies online. Although we hear about some very extreme instances of cyber-aggression from the mass media, it must be noted that less extreme instances happen all the time to all kinds of different kids and young adults, and we need to pay attention.

You sometimes hear people say, “People have been bullied since the beginning of time,” and that’s true. However, this type of bullying is different from the type of bullying that takes place on the schoolyard because when you go home at the end of the day and retreat to your room – a zone that is supposedly safe – the bullying continues. There is little escape.

Social networking sites make it even more difficult for victims because they make it so easy for the bullies to instantly post something mean or embarrassing about them to hundreds and potentially thousands of peers. The impact is immediate because the “attack” can be accomplished at the click of a mouse. There is little defense against this type of practice. Unlike when your parent teaches you to fight for yourself on the playground, if you stick up for yourself online, you risk even more ridicule and aggression.

Research shows that people often say things online that they would not have said in person, and the computer screen can have a de-humanizing, de-sensitizing effect on behavior. This is one factor that drives adolescents who might otherwise not engage in bullying or harassment.
I think we all have to agree, too, that to share a bully’s post or comment on it truly makes you complicit in the bullying process. A lot of people don’t think about it that way, but social networks allow for a real piling on effect that even previous types of cyberaggression did not.

What can be done? First of all, discussions like this one go a long way in educating the public about the problem and moving us beyond the sensational media stories to actually thinking about what we can do about the problem. We need to acknowledge as a culture, that cyberbullying is prevalent and a serious issue that has to be addressed.

There is a true lack of new media literacy among a lot of adults that makes this a tough issue to tackle because they literally have no understanding of how online technology works in the first place. That’s a real problem. More adults, especially parents and teachers but also people with no connections to young people, need to become educated on how this works – open a Facebook account yourself and use it. Get acquainted with the technology so you understand how it works and what can be done using it, and then you’ll better understand the issues and what’s at stake here (legally, culturally, and so on).

The other really important part of the equation is that parents and educators need to agree that we should be teaching our kids civility – both online and offline – at a very young age. We need to teach them the consequences of online bullying – tell them stories about real-life instances of cyber-aggression and how it truly affected a person’s life.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Discussion of cyberbullies on TPT "Almanac" last night, KSTP appearance

I apologize for the lack of real blog posts, but as you can see, I've been busy doing media appearances. I thought we did have an interesting discussion about social media and cyberbullying last night on the "Media Panel" segment of "Almanac," which airs on TPT, the Twin Cities PBS affiliate. Thought I'd share.

Here's a link (click on "Media Panel" when you get there):

"Almanac" -- October 15, 2010

I was also interviewed for the KSTP evening news by Collen Mahony the other night on the topic of law enforcement officials using social networks and mobile communication technologies to do research on crimes about minors. (It was part of one of the saddest stories I've ever heard, to be honest.) Here's that segment:

"Murder-Suicide Suspected in Deaths of Lakeland Teens"

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cyberbullying in the Age of Social Media: My Take

In case you were wondering about my take on cyberbullying, which has been in the news a lot lately (and probably should have been in the news long ago), here it is, in media-packaged form from the very good people at University of Minnesota News Services:

Cyberbullying has many facets, U of M expert says

The start of the new school year this fall has brought with it a national focus on and concern with cyberbullying. What is this form of bullying and how can it be addressed? A University of Minnesota expert who can comment on the current cyberbullying crisis is:

Shayla Thiel-Stern, assistant professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, College of Liberal Arts

Thiel-Stern says the issue of cyberbullying is far too complicated to blame on only one factor. “There is not just one root to this problem,” she says. “However, we can have a productive conversation about cyberbullying if we acknowledge the many facets of the issue.”

To see a video of Thiel-Stern discussing the topic of cyberbullying and what can be done to curtail it, visit http://mediamill.cla.umn.edu/mediamill/display/83724.

She says cyberbullying differs from traditional notions of bullying. “Some people note that bullying has always been around and that the current crisis is overblown,” Thiel-Stern says. “Children, teenagers and, yes, even adults, bully and have been bullied throughout human history, but it used to be that these instances were confined to a small space in ones life. You could usually escape a bully by going home at the end of the day, for example. The Internet makes this impossible.”

In addition, social media further complicates cyberbullying. “It is now so easy to ‘share’ media with the world that can negatively affect another person – whether it’s a complaint about another individual written as a Facebook status update, an out-of-context online conversation that someone has cut and paste or an embarrassing photo or video sent out to everyone on a friend list,” she says.

“Sadly, the victim has little recourse in this process. Once something about them is posted, it's out there. It is difficult for him or her to remove or refute the post before it continues to be shared.”

Thiel-Stern’s research interests focus on the intersections of new media, youth and gender as well as critical and cultural aspects of online journalism. Her first book, “Instant Identity: Adolescent Girls and the World of Instant Messaging,” was published by Peter Lang Publishing in March 2007.

To interview Thiel-Stern, contact Jeff Falk, University News Service, jfalk@umn.edu or (612) 626-1720.