July 18, 2012

What is Online Bullying? Part I

BullyingMany people have asked about what constitutes bullying in the atheist blogosphere and more generally online. Too many of us have been operating with an "I-know-it-when-I-see-it" approach that is thoroughly unhelpful when trying to establish shared meanings. So I decided to do a bit of research on the matter. How is bullying defined? What are the boundaries of the definition (i.e., how do we decide what counts as bullying and what does not)? What I've come up with so far suggests that this task is not as easy as it might appear.

Due to the length of what I've already written, this is going to be a multi-part series. In Part I, I'll take a look at how real-life bullying is defined (as opposed to online bullying). This is a necessary step because every definition of online bullying I've found refers to the more general form of bullying.

Defining Bullying

Bullying, even in real life, is not the easiest concept to define. Prof. Dan Olweus, an internationally recognized authority on bullying whose bullying prevention program is used in a number of schools, defined bullying in the following way:
A person is being bullied when he/she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons. Negative action is where a person intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort upon another person, through physical contact, through words or in other ways.
Clearly, bullying is more than physical aggression. It includes certain forms of speech.

Here's how the National Crime Prevention Council defines bullying:
Bullying is
  • Fighting, threatening, name-calling, teasing, or excluding someone repeatedly and over time
  • An imbalance of power, such as size or popularity
  • Physical, social, and emotional harm
  • Hurting another person to get something
The components emphasized in these and other definitions I've seen include a power differential and repetition.

Bullying Among Adults?

It should be noted that many sources suggest that the term "bullying" should be reserved for children and early teens and not applied to persons over the age of 18. I don't want to take the time to go through all the reasons for this recommendation, but I do agree with it. Many of the behaviors that define bullying in persons under 18 just don't apply to adults. When we talk about these sort of behaviors among adults, we need different terminology.

One government website, stopbullying.gov, also mentions that some cases of what we may think of as bullying in adults actually represents harassment or stalking. As we'll see later, this will have important implications for what terms we use.

In Part II, I'll examine online bulling, sometimes referred to as cyberbullying, and we'll take a look at cyber-harassment too.

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