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Civility and Bullying

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services includes on its webguide to bullying a definition and set of recommendations for the practice of combatting cyberbullying. As one might imagine, the definition of cyberbullying relies on a traditional definition of bullying, described as:

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.

In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

  • An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
  • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

As we discussed in our last class about anonymity and identity, communication involves a process of impression management that depends largely on context (see: Goffman). I also mentioned the work of Joshua Meyrowitz (No Sense of Place) and the notion that context dramatically changes with the introduction of new technologies, producing new rules and behaviors. Sternberg dedicates an entire book to this subject, relying on the ideas of Goffman and Meyrowitz, some of which can be found in an article called Misbehavior in Mediated Places (available via Blackboard)Definitions of civility don’t much change in the transition between physical and electronic (or cyber) space, but the practices and norms that accompany those definitions differ in many ways.

Patchin and Hinduja, in 2006, produced an important journal article called Bullies Move Beyond the Schoolyard (available via Blackboard) in which they distinguish traditional bullying from cyberbullying in the following ways:

  1. Cyberbullies often remain anonymous
  2. It’s easier to bully via a keyboard than in person
  3. Supervision is lacking in cyberspace
  4. Parents and other adult authorities often know less about technology than adolescents
  5. We’re always connected, and rely on those connections, so the potential is always there
  6. Bullying knows no time or space online

What aspects of our traditional notions of civility translate to digital environments? Which do not, and why? Are there special rules governing civility in different online environments? Are there special rules governing the relationship between offline and online communication? What does it mean to be civil or uncivil online? What are the sanctions (penalties) for those who are uncivil, either in the sense of being rude or sociopathic? What are the key differences, if any, between trolls and cyberbullies?

Consider some prominent examples of online incivility or cyberbullying from the news. Apply some of the thinking found in our class to those stories in order to help understand them better.


About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University



  1. Pingback: Sockpuppets and Catfish | Digital Media & Cyberculture - June 3, 2013

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