A big event is happening in our Boston backyard today: Lady Gaga is coming to town to launch her Born This Way Foundation (BTWF).
Anything Lady Gaga does is big news these days. Here at Latitude News what we are really interested in is her foundation’s explicit focus on anti-bullying, not just here in the U.S. but around the world. Gaga is, after all, a global phenomenon with almost 20 million Twitter followers.
“With a focus on digital mobilization to create positive change,” the foundation’s organizers said in a press release, “BTWF will lead youth into a braver new society where each individual is accepted and loved as the person they were born to be.”
The irony, of course, is that just as campaigning for tolerance and understanding is made easier by social media so, it appears, is bullying.
Take the trial currently taking place around the death of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi.
Clementi committed suicide days after his Indian-American roommate tweeted about using a webcam to secretly record Clementi’s sexual encounter with an older gay man. (Incidentally, the case is generating significant media attention in India.)
This is not the first time that social media have been blamed in the fight against bullying. Last fall, news that 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer committed suicide after he was repeatedly and aggressively victimized online and off for being gay.
In the months before his death, Rodemeyer posted a video detailing to the bullying he endured, “People would be like ‘faggot, fag,’ and they’d taunt me in the hallways and I felt like I could never escape it.”
Setting aside the obvious tragedy of bullying and teen suicide, the considerable media attention surrounding these cases underscores a growing concern with the role of technology in bullying incidents.
The risks are evident. The majority of young people in the U.S. and Europe go online, at increasingly younger ages and in private spaces like bedrooms and on mobile phones.
Once there, they will almost certainly find mean and cruel behavior on social networking sites, according to a 2011 Pew Internet report on U.S. teen behavior on social network sites.
But the fact is that the story is not all negative: social media are also helping young people tackle bullying. Witness Lady Gaga’s Foundation.
And it’s also worth underlining that core causes of bullying aren’t to do with technology.
We’ve talked with teens in the UK about cyberbullying, as well as experts there and back here in the U.S.
Traditional bullying expands into online settings
15-year-old Paige Chandler lives in London. The British teen says her tormentors followed her from school onto social networking sites. After she joined a social question-and-answer site but failed to adequately protect her profile, strangers also began to harass her. Chandler says she felt traumatized by the whole experience. “When somebody calls you names over and over again, you start to actually believe what they’re saying,” the teenager recalls.
Chandler’s experience is not uncommon. Studies from the European Union and the U.S. both suggest that about 12-17 per cent of young people are bullied online. The majority of victims appear to know their tormentors, online or off.
Chandler sought help from Cybermentors, an online space where trained counselors and other young people help victims deal with bullying incidents. Today she herself is a cybermentor.
Cyberbullying is less common than traditional bullying
Chandler sought outside help but a majority of young people report that they have defended an online victim or told a harasser to stop being mean, according to the Pew study.
And researchers point out that rates of bullying have not increased with new technologies: bullying online is consistently less common than schoolyard bullying.
Beyond that, however, many questions remain about how to understand youth online aggression – and what to do about it.
“By and large, what kids are doing in these online spaces is little different to what they were doing in offline spaces, “ says sociologist C.J. Pascoe. Although these behaviors are deeply worrisome, Pascoe stresses that they are using technology to do many of the things they’ve always done. “Adults are flying into panic when they see kids fighting in a YouTube video” or realize that young people are spreading rumors about one another online. These behaviors aren’t caused by the technology, Pascoe argues. What’s happening is that new media is offering a “window into an adolescent world” that we didn’t see at all before.
CJ Pascoe: “What do you look like as a digital citizen….”
New technologies are changing youth behavior
One thing is clear: cruel comments and nasty behavior can spread quickly and engage a large number of people online, much more quickly and widely than in the playground.
But American child psychologist Dorothy Espelage emphasizes that many questions remain about the cyberbullying. “We know that kids use face-to-face bullying use bullying to establish high social status and gain popularity and maintain that social status,” Espelage asserts. “But what does that look like in the online environment?”
For instance, “a bully might not get the pleasure of seeing a victim cry or of displaying strength publically,” adds UK psychologist Peter Smith.
He also points out that revenge might play out in a different way online. “The person doing the bullying is partly protected because the victim might not know who they are,” Smith says, providing the victim a change to get back at his/her tormentor.
For some it’s bullying, for other it’s just “having fun”
Underlying all of the theory is the reality that young people can’t always distinguish between having fun and being mean.
University student John Hyland lives in Liverpool, England. Hyland used to regularly witness bullying incidents when he was still in high school. Referring to a former dyslexic classmate who was taunted mercilessly for spelling errors on Facebook, John saw “loads of people jump on it.” Comparing it to playground taunting taken to the extreme, Hyland adds, “it’s not something meant to be spiteful or hurtful but it’s just something you get involved in in a way.”
It turns out, that this might be what’s most critical to keep in mind about bullying and new media.
The authors of a recent report examining risks and safety on the internet among 33 European countries conclude that school-wide interventions and education are best ways to address aggressive youth behavior online, not greater online controls:
Since risk increases as use increases, it might seem simple to call for restrictions on children’s use of the internet. But online opportunities and digital literacy also increase with use, so there is no simple solution. Rather, ways must be found to manage risk without unduly restricting opportunities.
The same European researchers point out that online spaces present significant opportunities for young people.
John Hyland: “People think you got away with it…on Facebook or texts….”
American CJ Pascoe agrees: “Social media has helped marginalized kids reach out and find other people like them in all sorts of ways. It could be in terms of hobbies, sexuality, gender identity, or racial identity.”
New media provides opportunities for young people to connect in new ways
Many bullying experts discount the media’s sensationalistic focus on bully-suicides. Their point is that these headlines downplay less dramatic effects that impact greater numbers of young people. That may be, but the news of Jamey Rodemeyer’s death deeply impacted John Hyland. He even recorded his own video in response and pledging to help others in need: “But remember, you are not alone. We are everywhere. Even on YouTube.”
Hyland wasn’t alone in being moved by Rodemeyer’s death.
Rodemeyer sent his last tweet to Lady Gaga who had already taken up the cause to fight bullying of gay teens: “@ladygaga bye mother monster, thank you for all you have done, paws up forever.”
In response, Lady Gaga dedicated a song to Rodemeyer during a concert in Las Vegas, vowing to advocate for law against bullying. The video that Rodemeyer had posted detailing his efforts to overcome his tormentors quickly received more than a million views. Thousands of kids around the world also responded to news of Rodemeyer’s death, posting on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
— Li††le Mons†er (@HausOfMorganG) February 19, 2012
que lo qued le paso a jamey rodemeyer tome consiencia y haga que se akabe la homofobia porfavor @LadyGaGaCo
— cristian danilo(@cristiandanil24) February 23, 2012 [BRAZIL]
Young people are using new media to organize in new ways.
Hyland uses video blogging is a way to be active in the LGBT community. He says he felt even more driven to do something in response to the UK’s extensive news coverage of gay teen suicides in America, reaching out to other Brits who might need the kind of support that Rodemeyer didn’t get. Hyland has since begun working on a website that he hopes will provide information for lesbian and gay youth in Britain.