Understanding Cyber Age Bullying

Professor of Psychology Robert McCormick is the founder and director of Montclair State University’s Center for Child Advocacy, which offers 12-hour anti-bullying training, with a focus on New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Law, for school personnel and others who wish to gain a deeper understanding about bullying. Anti-bullying advocates have described the law, enacted a year after the suicide of 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi in September 2010, as the toughest in the nation.

Q: What lessons have been learned from the Ravi-Clementi case?

A: The best thing is perhaps some consciousness-raising for people. What’s important for students to realize is that bullying is not just cruel, there are also legal repercussions. In this case, the people were over 18; they weren’t children. But younger kids look up to older kids, so hopefully there’s a lesson to be learned that sometimes older kids don’t always lead us in the right direction. Hopefully, older kids realize they can be prosecuted for doing things like this. As horrible as these episodes are, they at least help raise awareness. Kids are dying and that shouldn’t happen on our watch. We need to fix this—we’re all responsible for that.

Another lesson to be learned is that we can’t assume our definition of personal space matches someone else’s. For someone from my generation, filming someone in a sexual situation would be beyond our imagination. A lot of younger people probably think that way too, but others who may not be horrible people are more desensitized to having a lack of personal space. They might not see it as being as big a deal because they’re used to revealing their intimate thoughts on Facebook. For others, obviously for Tyler, it was.

Q: How does bullying today differ from a generation ago?

A: I don’t think bullying per se is different. I think what’s different is the context in which it’s played out. Years ago, if we were bullied, we went home to the safety of our rooms and we could shut out the bullying until the next day. Now, bullying is relentless. It follows us with our computers; it follows us with our cell phones; it follows us at home. There’s no safety, no place where we can go.

It’s much more damaging, particularly for adolescents, where shame, humiliation, embarrassment, and peer acceptance are so important. Now you have the world knowing that you are this or that. Sometimes there are pictures, which is even worse. The worst thing you can do is embarrass an adolescent. And then there’s Facebook. Let’s say I have 150 friends and I send something to someone who also has 150 friends. The numbers of people involved are beyond our imagination.

Q: In terms of bullying, what can a parent tell a child about responsible computer use?

A: The larger issue is the parent-child dialogue that seems not to be happening. Parents need to talk to their children earlier and they also need to listen to their children. I don’t think you can suddenly talk about being a responsible computer user at age 14 if there’s been a lack of communication since birth. You have to have that relationship established. Some of these behaviors indicate to me a lack of values. I think that the conversation about invading someone’s space isn’t just related to computers, it’s related to other things: how people talk to each other and the lack of civility in our society. We can have short-term computer conversations with our children, but it’s more about developing a relationship. Once you have that relationship, kids will listen.

There’s nothing wrong with supervising a child. We give kids keys to a car but we give them lessons on how to drive. We give them a computer and say, “Have Fun.” We forget that transition from games to Facebook, and maybe to pornography. I don’t think we can have one conversation about computers. It has to be ongoing.