Why Cyberbullying isn’t.
So here I am again, trying to get my thoughts organized before I have to make them sound important and scholarly and factual-ish.
I’ve read oh-so-many academic articles on “cyberbullying” over the last two years, and especially over the last two months. I’ve read countless more journalistic stories about it. The words “bully” and “troll” can mean anything from someone who posts violent threats, revenge porn and engages in swatting to someone who says something snarky about a band you like. This is problematic for a whole bunch of reasons.
There’s a psychodynamic model for bullying that goes like this:
Person A has a proclivity to avoid negative feelings about him or herself. This is a pattern usually formed in childhood. Maybe A’s mom or dad couldn’t handle rage, pain, or fear, so either penalized or ignored A when A showed those emotions.
Person B has a proclivity for allowing others to define him or her and is receptive to negative judgements. This pattern is usually formed in childhood. Maybe B’s mom or dad was an adult A, and instead of dealing with his or her own negative emotions, mom or dad projected them on B and then penalized B in some way.
B learned to contain; A learned to expel.
A can’t face his or her own negative feelings, so A splits those feelings off from “positive” ones and projects them on the people around him or her. So if A is fearful, A decides instead that someone A knows is a terribly weak, fearful person, and treats them poorly for it. A has a streak of sadism; projecting negative stuff on others allows A to experience A’s split feelings in a voyeuristic way by forcing someone else to act them out.
B is used to taking on other people’s projections and gets a sense of being needed or fulfilled from taking care of others. B tends to exaggerate his or her own flaws rather than think poorly of others (probably because B’s parent(s) would get nasty if B pointed out their negative feelings or behavior). B has a masochistic streak; the energy and attention from being the object of projection is familiar and seductive. B may repress his or her own aggression and experience it through others.
A and B must exist within a System that supports this dynamic. At school, teachers who encourage aggressive behavior, ignore negative feelings, or abdicate responsibility can be part of the system. A workplace may have a culture where managers and leaders act more like A than B, and bystanders are either too scared of becoming victims to intervene, or are cathartically enjoying B’s abuse. The System must have some kind of hierarchy or structural component that favors certain people over others. At school it can be wealth, privilege, appearance, or popularity. At work it can be all those things, plus structural authority.
A eventually figures out that B is a likely container for A’s negative feelings and repressed desires. B feels needed and falls into holding these projections for A. Bullying commences. Bullying can take the form of physical, mental, or emotional abuse. All of this is unconscious, meaning that A does not know that he or she is abusive (A tends to see him or herself as persecuted) and B thinks that he or she is somehow inviting or deserving of A’s abuse and feels helpless to escape.
There is lots of debate about physical vs. emotional aggression, some of which makes the point that some emotional aggression doesn’t fit the bullying model because it is transitory and has adaptive as well as maladaptive outcomes.
I choose to define bullying as a process between two people (though others may be involved) that follows this psychological model:
Person A is unable to recognize his or her own negative traits, emotions, and desires. These are split off and projected on others.
Person B is unable to draw healthy boundaries and tends to internalize negative projections.
System reinforces this dynamic and allows it to perpetuate.
A couple notes on kids and teens vs. adults and bullying. There’s some evidence that relational aggression (often known as emotional bullying) is a necessary developmental stage. Kids have to learn how to deal with their feelings in relationship to others; whacking you in the face is normal for an enraged two year old, it’s not okay for a fourteen year old. But the fourteen year old doesn’t have as much self knowledge, experience, or emotional control as an adult, so being verbally cruel, exclusionary, or otherwise dickish to other kids, while icky, is not unusual and is debatably developmentally appropriate. How else are kids going to learn that dickish behavior has negative outcomes? How else can kids learn not to be friends with dickish people? While bullying at schools is a huge problem, I think we are making it worse by shoving kids into these archetypes of Bully and Victim and ignoring the reasons why these kids choose to behave as they do and how we can help them deal with their feelings more productively.
There is no Bully without pain, just is there is no Victim without aggression.
Adults, on the other hand, should have developed the ability to verbalize their feelings directly rather than engage in dickish behavior. Alas, this is not often the case.
I have found exactly zero literature comparing bullying at different developmental levels. The literature on bullying amongst adults bemoans the lack thereof (mostly, it’s a whole lot easier to study kids and undergrads for various reasons), but I have yet to find anyone other than Freudians like George Vaillant who look at defense mechanisms over the lifespan. which is the closest I can get to bullying over the lifespan. If you have ever read an academic article or book that looks at bullying and human development, please email me yesterday.
The reason why cyberbullying isn’t:
The internet is populated by As and Bs, just like the physical world (it’s the same people). But the System is totally different. On the internet, if someone leaves me a negative comment I can respond in a variety of ways without fear of any kind of systemic reprisal. Does this sound abstract? Okay, let’s look briefly at an example from the kind of stuff I study.
Here’s an article by Lindy West, a prominent Fat Activist, on getting married while fat.
Her stance is what might be called by sociologists, “non-normative.” She’s saying that when you get married, if you’re fat, you are expected to lose a ton of weight before you walk down the aisle. She didn’t, and she’s cool with that. I can’t use this example for the really virulent comments, because The Guardian removes them, but in general, aggressive acts in a relationship or in your career because you’re fat is pretty acceptable socially. Discrimination, disparaging remarks, and rejection are still normative, though the body positive movement may be changing this (one hopes). But if my boss or my husband said something dickish to me about my weight, I would be enmeshed in this whole system that would make it hard for me to fight back. Can I risk losing my job? Should I risk the stability of my marriage and by extension my daughter’s well-being? So those situation have the potential for bullying if I already feel bad about myself or vulnerable around being fat.
But online, those systems don’t exist. So some jackass says this:
“Unbelievable! I wonder if the guardian online would publish a piece promoting anorexia?”
If it were my boss saying this, I might laugh nervously and maybe say something mollifying or self-depricating in order to avoid risking his ire. But what happens online? People respond in a variety of ways, non of which demonstrate any systemic prohibition against being counter-aggressive or arguing – things that are very risky in an actual bullying situation.
“Anorexia is an illness that can kill. Being chubs and getting married and telling ladies we don’t have to look like we have to eat dust for 6 months before our wedding because it is all good, isn’t.”
“Actually, the “risks” of obesity have been vastly overstated by the commercial weight loss industry. An obese woman might live 5 to 10 years less than an overweight one. In fact, a so-called “overweight” person stands a good chance of outliving an “ideal” weight person.”
“I don’t think the lovely lady in question is about to keel over due to being a bit chubs.”
“She’s not ‘chubs’ though, she’s obese. I’m glad she’s happy, glad she had a wonderful day, but I hope her weight doesn’t spoil the rest of her life”
Who are the As? Who are the Bs? Who is being more aggressive? Does it even matter?
So there are people defending West/themselves, and people attacking West/each other. Both parties have equal agency. While the “it’s okay to be fat” comments show some defense mechanisms like identification (the Jackass didn’t actually say anything about you, he was attacking the magazine for “promoting obesity”), the “fat people are doomed to die young” people are also displaying some spectacular projection. Neither has more power than the other. So while some participants seem angry, defensive, judgy, and other unpleasant things, it’s not bullying. Bullying requires a system that supports the projections of the aggressor and the victimization of the target. A newspaper that publishes an article on why it’s okay to be fat by a known fat activist is unlikely to be that system. Even if it were (if the magazine systematically deleted all the comments on one side of the argument), it is likely that the marginalized participants would take it to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or some other online forum. Everybody gets instant gratification on the internet, so everyone has about the same ability to say what they want to say.
True Bullies and Victims get some major psychic juice from their interactions. They replay childhood roles. They avoid scary or repressed feelings and desires, and they do it in a container or system that keeps the cycle going for some time. Online, most people contradict, attack, defend, agree, disagree, and generally act out their stuff. There are no clear bullies or victims; in my research many participants move between emotions and roles during a single conversation. I actually think that the old “don’t feed the Trolls” norm was more likely to perpetuate a bullying-like scenario, as it put the target in the position of having to “rise above” (not respond to) verbal abuse. I suspect that for the aggressor, silencing their target is more gratifying than having the target counter-attack, contradict, or attempt to engage in conversation.
So point 1 is: Online aggression does not equal bullying.
However, there are many kinds of extreme aggression online, which carry more of the psychological distortions associated with bullying. Revenge porn, where a rejected person posts naked pics or videos of an ex is pretty evil. It resembles bullying in that there are few legal ways for the target to respond (yet), though I suppose he or she might respond in kind. Still, it’s more a case of naked aggression; there is no dance between the aggressor and target; no symbiotic relationship for projection and identification.
Swatting, cyberstalking, doxxing, and other extreme forms of online aggression are similar. In the absence of clear legislation and law enforcement prohibiting this kind of violence, targets lack power to respond, but again, they are being terrorized, not bullied.
Point 2 is: Online violence is criminal behavior, not bullying.
Calling the less extreme kinds of online aggression bullying overstates the power of the aggressor and vastly understates the power of the target. On the other side of the coin, reducing these violent, terrifying acts to bullying ignores the impact on the targets and allows law enforcement, legal professionals, and legislators to abdicate responsibility for protecting citizens from violent and destructive acts.
Point 3 is: Naming minor aggression or major aggression “cyberbullying” distorts its causes and effects.
The biggest problem I have with both the media and academic approach to cyberbullying, cyber-aggression, or whatever it’s being called at this moment, is that it almost always ignores the why. I’ve read countless articles on bullying, cyber and otherwise, and they are almost all concerned with these things:
- Is it bullying?
- Who is the bully?
- Who is the victim?
- How can it be prevented?
What is rarely discussed is “Why is this happening?” Why is the aggressor acting out? Why is the target unable to adequately defend or maintain boundaries? Why is the system in which it is taking place allowing for this behavior? This is what I’m interested in. The why is what truly separates a traditional bullying situation from the various kinds of online aggression. Too much of the literature totally ignores the why, for aggressors and targets (and bystanders and everyone who moves between roles). Aggression is not always destructive; targets of aggressive behavior are not always victims. Conflating this vast range of online behaviors with one model which was developed to explain very specific, IRL dynamic causes blindness to what is really happening.
If we can begin to take notice of all the way we are not bullies and not victims, we can start to try out healthier ways of expressing and responding to aggression.