July 20, 2012

What is Online Bullying? Part II

Cyber BullyingIn the first part of this series, we looked at how bullying has been defined. In this part, we're ready to take a look at online 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.

In Part III, I'll pick up at this point by posing the question of whether we need a way of describing this "not-quite-harassment-but-still-problematic" sort of communication. I'll also shift this discussion back to the atheist community.