Time to take the “cyber” out of “cyberbullying”

We don’t call it “pencil bullying” when someone uses a wooden stick with lead inside to write someone a threatening note. When a person shakes her fist in front of someone’s face, we don’t call it “fist bullying.” And when kids don’t let other kids sit at their lunch table, we don’t call it “table bullying.”

Yet when someone uses a cell phone or the Web to harass, demean, defame, or annoy another person, we give it the special name “cyberbullying.”

I was reminded of this when I read a news story about two teens from North Carolina who are facing cyberbullying charges for threatening a classmate. “According to arrest warrants,” according to the News & Observer story, “one of the teens posted comments on the (Facebook) page about running over the victim with his pickup truck.” The other teen was charged for saying that “he was bringing a gun to school to hunt [the victim].”

Those are very serious charges and, if true, are worthy of legal intervention. But are they cyberbullying or plain, old threats and intimidation? If they were scrawled on a bathroom wall, we wouldn’t call this “toilet bullying.” Take away the Facebook angle and this story could have been written 50 years ago. It’s not about technology, it’s about the way that people behave toward one other. I don’t think we need special cyberbulllying laws to protect people from threats that have long been illegal. In addition to the law, schools have the right to intervene if off-campus behavior affects life at school.

The same can be said for less extreme cases of harassment that happen to occur online. There are countless incidents at schools where kids tease, ridicule, intimidate, or otherwise harass classmates. In past years, these incidents might start on campus and haunt the victim even when away from school. I remember being harassed at school and then being threatened as I walked home. No one called that after-school incident “sidewalk bullying” and if school authorities or the police had intervened (they didn’t), I suspect they would have regarded the school and after-school incidents as part of a continuum, not separate events.

The same is true today on our digital sidewalks. A very high percentage of youth who are bullied say that the same people who bother them online or via text messages are also threatening them at school or other “real world” locations. In a 2008 study of middle-schoolers, 82 percent said that the person who bullied them is either from their school (26.5 percent), a friend (21.1 percent), an ex-friend (20 percent), or an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend (14.1 percent).

The bullying rarely happens only in “cyberspace.” And even if it does, it’s a symptom of something happening in the real lives of both the bullies and victims. Besides, if that young man from North Carolina were to run over his victim with a truck, it wouldn’t be a digitized truck from a video game. It would be a real truck, driving down a real street, doing real physical damage. That’s not cyberbullying. That’s a bodily threat.

Fortunately, most cases of bullying–whether they play out on a playground, on a Web site, on a cell phone, or (likely) all three–are far less threatening than the case in North Carolina. In most cases, the threats are more emotional and less physical, though not necessarily any less harmful emotionally. Whether it’s making fun of someone’s appearance, the way they speak, or their family situation, inflicting emotional trauma can be devastating and should never be tolerated.

The good news is that most kids don’t bully. Statistics on bullying are all over the map, but the general consensus among researchers is that about 15 to 20 percent of teens have been bullied.

And, despite all the recent media attention to bullying, there is no evidence that it’s getting worse. In fact, a 2010 study (PDF) published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that the percentage of youth (ages 2 to 17) reporting physical bullying in the past year went down from 22 percent to 15 percent between 2003 and 2008.

While it’s not an epidemic, bullying or just plain meanness is a problem among youth–and adults. I suggest a national campaign to help stamp it out, just as we’ve tried to do with smoking, blatant racism, and sexism with at least a modicum of success. I don’t care whether it’s online or offline, the impact is the same and so is the solution. People of all ages need to learn to respect themselves and others. Someone said it a very long time ago — back when stone tablets were all the rage — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Although they may be misnamed, Tips to Stop Cyberbullying are found on ConnectSafely.org, a site I help operate.

This post first appeared on CNET News.com

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