What is Online Bullying?


Many 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.

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.

Cyber Bullying

Online Bullying

Unfortunately, defining online bullying, or cyberbullying, is even more challenging than defining bullying. The National Crime Prevention Council merely notes, "Cyberbullying is similar to other types of bullying, except it takes place online and through text messages sent to cell phones." They provide examples such as "mean or threatening emails" and creating websites to make fun of someone. Their definition was quite similar to most I could find in that nearly every one I looked at referred back to bullying.

At the same time, much of the material on cyberbullying does emphasize aspects which distinguish it from other forms of bullying, such as the anonymity and disinhibition provided by the online environment, the increased accessibility of the victim to the perpetrator, and number of bystanders. Imagine the sort of reach a bully can get via the Internet vs. a school playground.

As appealing as the cyberbullying term might seem for describing what we want to talk about, it isn't the one we are seeking. Once again, a number of sources advise against using "cyberbullying" when referring to communication between adults. The preferred terms for describing this sort of behavior among adults appear to be cyber-harassment or cyber-stalking.


Since I believe it makes sense for us to focus on adult communication, I'll take a look at cyber-harassment. As it turns out, both cyber-harassment and cyber-stalking may be problematic when it comes to describing some bad behavior on the Internet. Why? Because many states have enacted laws against them. They are actually criminal offenses.

Here's what the National Conference of State Legislatures says about cyber-harassment:

Cyberharassment differs from cyberstalking in that it is generally defined as not involving a credible threat. Cyberharassment usually pertains to threatening or harassing email messages, instant messages, or to blog entries or websites dedicated solely to tormenting an individual. Some states approach cyberharrassment by including language addressing electronic communications in general harassment statutes, while others have created stand-alone cyberharassment statutes.

Note that threatening or harassing email messages and "blog entries or websites dedicated solely to tormenting an individual" are explicitly mentioned. They don't say "blogs or websites" but "blog entries or websites." I'm not sure if this is a typo, but it certainly has my attention.

This post from wiseGEEK provides some additional information that may have implications for the blogosphere.

There is no universal legal definition of cyber harassment, but it typically is defined as repeated, unsolicited, threatening behavior by a person or group using mobile or Internet technology with the intent to bother, terrify, intimidate, humiliate, threaten, harass or stalk someone else. The harassment can take place in any electronic environment where communication with others is possible… Posting a general opinion on a discussion board or in a forum is not considered cyber harassment.

A cyber harasser often will post comments to the victim that are intended to cause distress and will try to incite others to do the same.

Time to sum up what we've learned so far. "Bullying" is not the term we should use to describe the behavior of adults, but "cyber-harassment" has legal implications. If we believe that someone is truly engaging in cyber-harassment against us, we have legal recourse. On the other hand, we do not presently have a clear way of describing communication that does not rise to this level but which is nevertheless troublesome.

be excellent to each other

Not Harassment

What about communication that is upsetting in some way but falls short of cyber-harassment? How do we label it, and do we even need to do so? I have certainly seen examples of communication that would qualify as cyber-harassment or cyber-stalking under the law (e.g., repeated threatening or harassing messages intended to cause distress). Anybody remember the case of Dennis Markuze (aka, David Mabus)? This shifted from cyber-harassment to the more serious cyber-stalking when he was caught on camera in the location of an atheist conference at which some of those he had threatened were present.

Of course, it is far more common to see communication, especially online, that bumps up to the line of cyber-harassment without crossing it. So what do we call it, and do we even need a name for it?

We already have many names for communication that falls into this category. We describe it as demeaning, juvenile, intolerant, racist, sexist, uncivil, and the like. We recognize that it is perfectly legal and that it occurs far more often than cyber-harassment. Communication like this usually falls short of including threats, and it is not repetitive enough to constitute harassment.

Someone can be a rude asshole without being guilty of harassment. Someone can exhibit extremely poor social judgment without harassing anyone. Communication can be thoroughly insensitive without crossing the line to harassment.

Maybe we do not need to create another label for this sort of communication. That is not to say we should just ignore the behavior. Instead, we can describe it and how it impacts us. That may take more time and effort on our part, but it also seems more likely to result in some sort of increased awareness on the part of the person doing it.

Don't be a Dick?

Does all of this really come down to some version of the infamous "don't be a dick" pronouncement? I don't know. The "don't be a dick" thing was mostly about how we atheists present ourselves to religious believers and whether we should feign respect for what they believe so we don't contribute to their defensiveness. On the other hand, the present discussion is partially about how we should communicate with one another but mostly about how we handle disagreement within our community.

It does seem reasonable to expect that there would be a modicum of civility in how we interact with one another within the atheist community. The question is what we do when this expectation is violated, and I'm afraid there aren't any easy universally agreed upon answers.

It is important that we feel comfortable disagreeing with one another. This means that we should not seek to stifle productive discussion or demonize each other through petty name calling.

Freethought Bullies?

When I wrote previously about the bullying behavior from a few of the bloggers at Freethought Blogs, I used the "bully" label because it was already part of the meme. In fact, Ophelia Benson seemed to (Butterflies & Wheels) take credit for getting the #FTBullies hashtag to trend on Twitter.

From what I've learned here, "bullying" probably isn't the best label to use. Moreover, I not seen anything from the bloggers on Freethought Blogs that I would call cyber-harassment. That label seems far more appropriate for those who have been threatening them than it does for anything they have written.

Moving forward, it makes sense to be more descriptive rather than using flawed labels that do not adequately capture the behavior with which many have objected. If you feel bullied, describe the behavior that leads you to feel that way (e.g., name calling, shutting down disagreement by shifting the topic).

As we go about trying to have productive discussions, it is helpful to remember that we are all going to have somewhat different agendas within the atheist community. Some may be more focused on separation of church and state, others may be more interested in feminism, and so on. Fortunately, the community is large enough for all of us, and so is the atheist blogosphere.

This post was originally published as three separate posts in 2012. It was combined into one post in 2020.