Bullying in the digital age

We shouldn’t let technology take the blame for antiquated issues.

Trent M. Kays


Last week, the Maryland General Assembly passed House Bill 396, which seeks to stem “cyberbullying” by criminalizing certain behavior and annoyances. The bill, Grace’s Law, honors the tragic death of Grace McComas, a 15-year-old girl who committed suicide after being harassed by a neighbor via social media. The passage of this bill is a victory for politicians who are seizing on the omnipresent topic of cyberbullying.

Bullying isn’t new. People have bullied others since time immemorial. It happens in all the usual places: school, college, work, at the coffee shop and everywhere else. What’s changed is that now some are able to use computers to bully others without ever revealing themselves. When one comes across a bully and meets them face-to-face, they know who is instigating said bullying. This isn’t always so online.

Unfortunately, the Internet has provided many the opportunities to bully without understanding the effects of their actions.

There’s more at work here than simple stupidity. Psychologist John Suler popularized the phrase, “online disinhibition effect,” to help define what happens when we interact online. Fundamentally, we are unable to gauge how our messages are received because we cannot ascertain the social and bodily cues normally present in face-to-face interactions.

This leads to big trouble. As a result, people can become undeniably contemptible. This has happened to all of us. In many ways, if we cannot see the person we’re interacting with, we believe we are just interacting with a computer, not another human being. All of this occurs unconsciously, of course. I don’t believe anyone knowingly awakes each morning and sets out to be detestable online.

Yet, Grace’s Law may be to vague. The law intends to prohibit intentional harassing and annoying speech against a minor. But the bill doesn’t really define what these things look like or what “annoying” speech is. We all know what harassing speech looks like when we see it, right? But what if the speech isn’t seen as harassing to anyone except for the target of the speech? I’m not dismissing harassing speech, but I am suggesting that saying something is harassing speech and then seeing it played out are two very different things. While definitions are needed, they are hard to categorize.

I don’t want one more person — minor or otherwise — to commit suicide because another bullied them online or offline. Such death is always tragic and always uncalled for. But, how do we define speech that may seem normal to one person but harassment to another?

Grace’s Law falls short in this area. It seems to take a carte blanche approach to cyberbullying by working to abolish any harsh or annoying speech hurled toward a minor.

When I was younger, we didn’t need the Internet to be horrific to other people. We did it to their face or behind their back in groups. Regardless of the Internet, this still happens. So, how does this speech change when it enters the online realm? Perhaps it’s more noticeable or present online than offline, but overall we just aren’t teaching children or adults how to interact on the Internet.

We assume that the same principles of etiquette transfer to Internet interactions, but this simply isn’t the case. For example, I’ve been bullied online. I’ve been bullied by academics who disagree with some of my opinions. I’ve been maligned, treated poorly and dismissed by people whose job it is to entertain discussion. It’s painful to be treated in such a way.

I’ve been sent hate mail by academics and non-academics alike, and I’ve been the subject of malicious gossip amongst my peers. Yet, when I’ve come face-to-face with some of these individuals, they are too timid to say anything. They cower and pretend that nothing ever happened.

Is this harassment? Yes and no. In higher education, this is called critique before it’s called harassment.

Fundamentally, we forget that we still communicate with human beings across the Internet. They may be faceless and without a physical body to us, but at the other end of the line there is a human. That human has emotions, hopes, dreams and desires. They cry, and they laugh. They experience happiness and sadness. While some people do have darkness in their heart and knowingly set out to hurt others, a majority of Internet users are just trying to get along like the rest of us.

We need laws, like Grace’s Law, to protect minors from undue criticism and bullying. But we need those laws to be well-thought-out and well-defined. They shouldn’t be a gut reaction to an incident that requires our attention in more places than just the Internet. As always, our laws haven’t kept pace with our technology.

We need to protect ourselves while interacting on the Internet. However, we also need to understand that conversing in the digital age isn’t the same as conversing face-to-face. We need to relearn how to interact, and we need to start teaching children not only how to interact physically but interact digitally.

Blaming technology for our shortcomings will not help us solve this predicament. No individual deserves to be bullied, and bullies need to be brought to justice. Yet, as we bring them to justice, let’s remember that some speech is annoying but not harassment.

Sometimes people just don’t realize what they’re doing, so let’s re-educate them.