by Barry Chudakov on May 29th, 2010

Cyber Bullying

Two dogs are sitting in their master’s office, one next to a desk chair looking up, the other perched on the chair looking down. The dog on the chair has a paw on a keyboard in front of a computer monitor and says knowingly to his canine companion: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

That now-famous Peter Steiner cartoon appeared in the July 5, 1993 issue of The New Yorker magazine. Funny as it was, Steiner’s insight also opened a Pandora’s Box of questions and quandaries. Who are we when we present ourselves online?

This digital persona question finds a disturbing answer in the practice of cyber-bullying: when one child targets another child using interactive technologies. The excellent site Stop Cyberbullying describes cyber-bullying as: “when a child, preteen or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones.”


Cyber Bullying, Flickr, C Woodfield, all rights reserved.


To effectively address cyber-bullying we must first understand how these tools affect everyone. Only then we can begin to educate our children about the potential dangers to themselves and others in the use of these tools.

There are three players in the cyber-bullying drama. The person bullied; the bully himself or herself, and the Internet. Each plays a vital role in this disturbing “performance.”

Anonymity-Fueled Bravado

Like the bank robber’s mask or the Klansman’s hood, the Internet (and the anonymity-fueled bravado it provides) shields adolescents’ identities in a way not possible before we all became tethered to our communication tools. Before the Internet, bullying was typically physical; on the Internet, it is psychological. This is, in the words of the late sociologist Erving Goffman, a new “presentation of self in everyday life.”

The person bullied devolves to a raw detail. It may be his appearance: “You’re ugly!” Or the cheapest of emotions: “Everyone hates you!” In real life, our appearance or behavior can result in name-calling; my father’s best friend was named Seymour but everyone called him Shorty, a moniker common in the 1950s. In cyber-bullying, personal details divorce from our physical bodies; they appear on a laptop monitor, an iPhone screen. This encapsulates the power of cyber-bullying: Someone is here, in my face, my space, but I cannot see her.

In our texting-fired cyber existence — I call this a Metalife, the life form we assume in the cyber world — our physical self is both the cause and confounding factor in the dilemma. In this “life on the screen,” some hurtful word haunts, catches in the throat and widens our eyes in fear or shame. This is different than being taunted on the playground. At the very least there the target can run away. Cyber-bullying applies psychological pressure. Like a ghostly haunting, the victim may feel there is no exit, afraid of what’s in the closet of their own thoughts and emotions. Not confined by physical space, the fear is not only groundless, it can seem endless.



Cyber-bullies reduce themselves to urge, impulse, intent. It is as though the bully’s unseen face is a hollow mask. Behind it lies an arsenal of dark emotion, a stockpile of armaments waiting for the Enter button to launch salvos from the limbic self. The bully becomes projected emotion. Or more accurately, projectile emotion, aimed and then hurled at the other: the repugnant, the ugly, the dreary undesirable.

If tools can be said to have agendas, the metalife imperative of using communication tools is to understand how these tools transform our thinking — and then our behavior. Using them, our thoughts animate, enliven, and take on dimensions and avatar life forms previously available only to our imaginations. This is a power we rarely acknowledge. What is the wisdom of putting these tools in the hands of children, pre-teens or teenagers without fully educating them about the power they are wielding?

‘We Build Our Tools … Our Tools Build Us’

In simple terms, communication tools are thinking tools. This is an interactive pact: As Marshall McLuhan, Canadian media theorist and “patron saint” of Wired magazine said, “We build our tools and then our tools build us.” Because tools often shape, enhance, modify, distort, as well as inform and transform our thinking, we need to pay attention to how they do this—not least because our children are often at the front lines of that transformation. Parry Aftab, founder of Stop Cyberbullying, provides an Internet Golden Rule checklist entitled, “Ms. Parry’s guide to correct online etiquette (Netiquette).” This is a sound practical resource, well worth considering.

But in addition, we need to acknowledge that the adolescents in our kitchens and school hallways may not be the same persons who enter the cyber world. In the case of cyber-bullying, this can entail bewildering permutations. For example, Ms. Parry writes, “The cyber-bully one moment may become the victim the next. The kids often change roles, going from victim to bully and back again.”

Cyber-bullying happens because the other — the person whom the bully shrinks to an object of derision — appears to be conveniently absent. This illusion fosters a tool-enabled metalife that allows kids to vent their anger, frustration, joke, envy or other emotions on another in a hurtful way.



To fully understand cyber-bullying, we would be wise to start by understanding how easy it is to shield or assume a cyber identity, then use instant-access tools impulsively, without a thought for how that impulse might be received. Some thoughts are ours because we think them; other thoughts are ours because the typical censors of conscience and decorum appear to have vacated the scene; there isn’t time or place for them. In this way, we think through our tools. Whether expressing disdain or vindictiveness, this thinking-through compels us, sweeps us along in its logic: this unseen property of our communication tools can make cruelty easy, even banal.

When we use communication tools, we change. From the way we hold a meeting to whom we call a friend or how we connect with them, these tools change our lives in ways we barely acknowledge.

The antidote for cyber-bullying, as for other cyber behaviors that prove unacceptable, is to become more conscious of the way we use these tools and the ways they use us and how they affect our children. The more we understand our Metalife, how our tools can embody and bring to life a digital version of ourselves, the better equipped we will be to understand cyber-bullying–and cope with it.


Source: CJ57weblog, all rights reserved.


This article first appeared on Florida Thinks as Cyber-Bullies II: How the Internet Changes Us.


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  1. Metalifestream permalink

    Please note: all images on my site are not owned by this blog. I use them by permission, as indicated in the credit line. To request permission, you must contact the entity who owns the image, in most cases the entity credited by Flickr.

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