This is my column today.
Two separate but related events caught my attention recently. Both happened in cyberspace and had to do with cyberbullying.
I know. Bullying by itself is already a complicated problem and in a country such as ours, one that is largely ignored as one of those things that most kids have to go through to survive or become tougher. We all know bullying happens and that a sizable percentage of kids are bullied in school. And now we have yet another phenomenon that adds further complication—cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying is pretty much like ordinary bullying except that it is done with the aid of technology such as cellular phones or the Internet. The intent, however, remains the same, which is to humiliate another person for the purpose of proving superiority or power. Much of the behaviors around bullying happen under the surface—bullying is usually done covertly and in the case of cyberbullying, often anonymously.
The first incident that caught my attention involved some of the college students that are taking courses under me this term and happened in Facebook. Yes, I am a member of a few social networking sites and my official excuse is that being such helps me in becoming a better teacher. One can’t relate with the younger generation unless he immerses himself in the issues and the fads that preoccupy them, or at least that is what I tell myself. The truth is that Facebook is my only means of communicating with friends from high school and college who are now all over the world.
Facebook has this feature that enables people to upload pictures—any picture—and tag others who are supposed to be in it. Because it is a social networking site, anything one does on the site—from updating status, to poking someone, to joining a cause such as saving the Banaue Rice Terraces—is broadcast to everyone else within one’s circle of friends. This means that when a person is tagged in a picture, everyone else knows about it and can access the picture, leave comments, and comment on the comments of others. It goes on and on.
The site also happens to be very user friendly so a number of cartoons with a variety of faces showing different emotions are also available for downloading. Facebook offers a whole variety of these things such as a mock up of a whole class with a variety or personalities depicted—from the pretty, to the bright, to the studious, and then down to the unsavory and dysfunctional types such as the drunk, the flirt, the arrogant. You get the drift.
One threw the first salvo by downloading one such cartoon and tagging his classmates—matching characters and personalities with names and in effect giving each one a label. Everyone got into the act and soon there was a frenzy of cross tagging. It soon got into a point when people were already ganging up on some of their classmates. All in the spirit of fun, of course, but a number were already clearly getting offended and two of them did confide to me that they felt violated.
Being the professor, I called the attention of the perpetrators and counseled them about what cyberbullying is and why it shouldn’t be done. Guess what, one of them put up yet another cartoon and tagged me as the class bully. Of course I dealt with the situation and with the student in ways that made it known that the student crossed a line. He did take the cartoon down and apologized. But it was evident that he really thought there was nothing wrong with the whole thing because it was meant as a joke and they were just having fun. This is symptomatic of how cyberbullying operates—very often, the perpetrators are in denial of the negative implications of their actions. Most don’t often see what they do as a form of aggression.
But if you think cyberbullying is a problem that is happening only among the younger generation, think twice. Workplace bullying and cyberbullying even among the ranks of the professionals are also on the rise.
To illustrate, let me share with you another incident that happened in one of my professional e-mail groups. The incident started when one member complained about alleged “cyberbullying” that happens in the group. Apparently, some people felt that their inquiries or opinions were often responded to in a patronizing or condescending manner and that certain “gurus” in the forum tended to display aggression towards novice members, prompting many of them to just lurk and be passive participants. The e-mail sparked a very spirited discussion that raged on for weeks.
The discussion eventually converged on the thesis that cyberbullying is a highly subjective concept and largely defined by the “victims” of the act; a definition that seemed like a win-win conclusion, but which unfortunately didn’t really help put closure to the debate. There are, after all, inherent problems when subjectivity is invoked, foremost of which is the tacit recognition that each person’s interpretation is valid and that everyone has a right to feel aggrieved, or conversely, victorious.
Eventually, what I feared most happened. The discussion got personal. The issue eventually got waylaid into a discussion of ethical behavior in the e-mail group at which point all hell broke loose. The air got thick with accusations and innuendoes, some people felt alluded to, and well, you know how these things ultimately end with threats of legal action. Last I looked, people were still trying to mediate and put closure to the debate.
In the din and dynamics of the whole debate and resulting fracas, the original issue of contention, which was cyberbullying, was forgotten.
In both incidents, people could not agree on what cyberbullying was and consequently, what behaviors qualified as cyberbullying. The confusion and the resulting debates were indicative of just how difficult it is to analyze human behavior particularly because most everyone seems to think of themselves experts on the subject. This penchant for playing psychologist or psychiatrist is common and is perfectly understandable—we’re all human, we manifest all kinds of human behaviors, and we are exposed to the behaviors of a variety of other people everyday. Ergo, we’re all qualified to join any discussion about human behavior. The problem is that when people make assertions and render judgments about human behaviors that are based purely on gut feel and intuition, the whole discussion becomes a free-for-all shouting match.
I am still not sure if cyberbullying really occurred in the second incident I cited and unfortunately, given the way people were burned in the resulting attempt to discuss the issue analytically, we’ll never really know now as most have opted to just bury the whole issue unresolved. But based on what happened in the two incidents, third things are clear. First, cyberbullying is a phenomenon that is becoming more and more real today. Second, we’re pitifully unprepared to manage the issue; at this point it seems no one has anticipated the phenomenon—not academe, not the corporate world, not even the psychologists and the human resource managers. And consequently, we’re all dealing with the static around the issue rather than the issue itself.
(Photo/cartoon taken from facebook - it's an example of what I am talking about and this one is the milder variety).