So-called cyberbullying is still just bullying, which predates the internet by centuries
by Laurie Penny
August 11, 2014
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'An epochal shift in communications technology has multiplied the effects of the bullying … but the internet is also a lifeline for millions of young people.' Photograph: TMO Pictures/Alamy
Somebody has to stop the internet. New studies have revealed a staggering rise in self-harm among young people, and the evils of modern technology are directly to blame for the epidemic of adult commentators making sweeping generalisations and missing the point.
Self-harm is a serious issue. It’s what happens when a person can find no respite from pain and frustration, no outlet to express fear and rage, and those destructive feelings are turned inward instead, scored out on the skin, sometimes fatally so. There is now a profound crisis in young people’s mental health, and self-harm is just one symptom of that crisis – according to the latest figures, self-injury has risen by as much as 70% in the past two years among 10- to 14-year-olds, and there has been a chilling surge in suicide attempts among people with their entire lives still to live, many of them linked to bullying.
When young people are in danger, it’s natural to look for simple answers that appear to have simple solutions – ramp up the censorship, clamp down on young people’s social media use, and all this will stop. Blaming technology, however, is rather too easy an answer.
Technology, according to Melvin Krantzberg, “is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral”. Unquestionably, an epochal shift in communications technology has multiplied the effects of the bullying, allowing young people to torment each other in new and intimately relentless ways. But the internet is also a lifeline for millions of young people. Children aren’t just using technology to watch violent porn and torment one another over their tastes in tank tops and pop music; they are using technology to make friends, share information, build support networks, and learn things they aren’t being taught in school hours.
Bullying, meanwhile, predates the internet by a good few centuries. Before Ask.fm and Facebook there were the girls’ toilets, the gymnasium and the playground; there was school itself, which, for a large minority of children, has long been a synonym for a special sort of ritualistic social torture. Nobody, however, would suggest that the way to stop bullying was simply to prevent children from going to school.
What adult politicians and pundits call “cyberbullying” is experienced by most young people simply as bullying. In this society, however, we often lack the language to speak of bullying as a structural problem to be dealt with by itself. When children are harassed, victimised and attacked by other children, it’s just a “rite of passage”, something to be borne in silence or dealt with in therapy decades later. If what went on in the playground was as bad as all that, something would have been done about it already. But the solution is not to lock down the technology, or to prevent children from accessing information that can be life-changing, even life-saving. The solution is to take bullying as seriously as we should have been taking it for generations.
Adult society is comfortable telling children that if they steal from a shop or smash a window, that’s a crime, and there will be consequences, albeit consequences that take into account the fact that they have a good deal of growing up to do. Harassment, however, goes unpunished; physical, sexual and emotional violence towards your peers only start to accrue serious consequences when you leave school, by which point patterns of behaviour have already been set – patterns that we can see played out in adult society all to clearly.
What is required is not less technology, but more compassion. It’s not easy being a teenager today. Access to limitless information, and the power to build friendships and share information across boundaries of distance and nationhood, are among the best things about a future that is increasingly uncertain, a present heavy with academic and economic pressure, a culture where social attitudes towards anyone who is a little bit different are hardening every day.
Adults created this world, but it’s children who will have to grow up in it, and blaming the internet for their distress is not just a cop-out – it’s deeply patronising.