Blog Post

Chapter 5: Bullying - Is social media amplifying meanness and cruelty? (review by Hilarie Ashton and Ben Burroughs)

Part of the HASTAC Scholars Collaborative Book Review of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd


Review of Chapter 5: Bullying - is social media amplifying meanness and cruelty? 

by Ben Burroughs (University of Iowa) and Hilarie Ashton (CUNY)

While much of the substance of boyd's book is current enough to be headline-aligned, her chapter on bullying is particularly and poignantly timely. After a discussion of Amanda Todd in the previous chapter, she dives right in to a different kind of shocking insight: her collaborator's interview subject, fourteen year-old Ashley, began using social media as a bullying device when she was in fourth grade (129). In conversation with Alice Marwick, Ashley defined the verbal needling she saw at school as "indirect bullying" (ibid.), a somewhat chilling perception of teenage social norms that leads boyd to conclude that "both bullying and drama have imprecise definitions, and technologically mediated meanness and cruelty is interwoven with school conflict" (130). boyd rightly questions journalists and lawmakers as they jump to frame "cyberbullying" as a new moral panic. The term itself refers to bullying that's mediated by technology; interestingly, the activist (and adolescent-focused) group defines it with specific reference to adolescents: "the use of technology to hassle, threaten, verbally abuse or humiliate another teen (our italics). The pulling apart of definitions like Ashley's, as well as the disconnect between scholarly definitions of bullying and public ones (132) provides the bulk of the analysis in this chapter.

boyd argues, using case studies and outside research as backing, that "the visibility and persistence of networked publics may enable larger audiences to witness acts of bullying. These same affordances create novel opportunities for people to intervene" (133). The disjunct between teenage and adult definitions of and responses to bullying is part of what makes this intervention so difficult, as boyd carefully and sympathetically shows: "Rather than serving as a valuable tool for creating conversations between children and their parents, visibility often further complicates how parents and other adults understand bullying" (134). boyd argues that adults and news media use the term bullying loosely and as an umbrella term that often conflates serious criminal actions such as stalking, harassing, and abuse with bullying. This lack of nuance makes it difficult for the public to understand and parse out what can or should count as bullying.

boyd clearly understands the duality of technology and its particular affordances that make bullying visible and persistent while at the same time opening spaces for intervention because of those public traces. She recommends less parental surveillance with this heightened visibility and for more conversation and dialogue between parents and children that can get at the complexity of bullying. When schools or parents do intervene in situations or instances deemed as bullying they often reduce this complexity to “blaming the perpetrator and protecting the victim” (136). This kind of shortsighted intervention can actually exacerbate the problems. "When adults reframe every interpersonal conflict in terms of bullying or focus on determining who’s at fault and punishing that person, they also lose a valuable opportunity to help teens navigate the complicated interpersonal dynamics and social challenges that they face" (136).

Ashley's selective diction, which opens the chapter, connects to boyd's conclusion about two other research subjects: "because Chloe and Vicki do not see a power differential between those engaged in interpersonal conflict, they do not use the term bullying" (137). Such deliberate word choice is both freeing and constrictive for teens: it allows them to define their own terms, but it also makes it harder for adults to understand what they mean and be helpful in their interventions. (Relatedly, in boyd and Marwick's 2011 New York Timesop-ed on the subject, they write, "For a teenager to recognize herself or himself in the adult language of bullying carries social and psychological costs." boyd uses the tangled story of Chris, a boy struggling with his sexuality and lashing out at a female friend (Taylor) for "stealing” their mutual friend Cory and dating him, to advocate for increased empathy towards those doing the attacking - not just the victims. Breaking down the unproductive binary of perpetrator and victim gets beyond blame and pushes us to look further at the language and cultural norms of teens, which, for boyd, is central for parents to distinguishing between “meanness and cruelty” and bullying.

Some of boyd's conclusions seem basic on the surface - technology makes bullying easier, teens respond differently to different kinds of bullying - but she backs them up with case study data and, often, pairs them with sociological and psychological research. They ultimately form the backbone of the analysis from which she then draws more subtly outward. Her discussion of drama, which traces the difference in teen and adult perceptions/definitions as well as parsing its normative role alongside its destructive one, leads into boyd's most interesting section, "The Celebritization of Everyday Life." For boyd, the emergent attention economy and celebrity culture have normalized “drama” as a part of everyday public and digital life: "Teens see gossip, drama, and attention games all around them, and not surprisingly, they mirror what they see" (148). Within this lack of privacy and heightened visibility, positive and negative feedback go together. For teens, "(t)he same practices that they watch celebrities engage in—and themselves participate in as fans—also influence their understanding of how to navigate attention and status" (148). Including the example of Rebecca Black, a young girl who, at the age of thirteen, posted a music video to YouTube only to have it become one of the most disliked videos ever on the site, nicely triangulates boyd's point about bullying and media with her discussion of celebritization. (The fact that the video was professionally and expensively made added to much of the discussion, to say nothing of the bubblegum quality of the song, "Friday.") The Black example also raises galvanizing questions about audience engagement in an era of networked sociality. Are all anti-fans of Rebecca Black reduced to bullies? Can we distinguish between the deplorable localized bullying and harassment of, for example, Star Wars Kid and the memetic, participatory life of the video within a broader networked culture?

boyd ultimately contends in this chapter that within networked publics, teens are not just hanging out but are actually competing for social status. To understand the importance of this dynamic, we must keep in mind the important context of bullying for teens: it is a battleground of "reputation, status, and popularity" where attention is a commodity and “drama” is embedded in everyday teenage life. As boyd puts it, "[s]ocial media has not radically altered the dynamics of bullying, but it has made these dynamics more visible to more people" (152). This visibility must be productively embraced, not to increase punishment and surveilling, but to empower teens to start to move beyond meanness and cruelty and to identify teens that are calling out for attention. We must also move beyond moral and media panics and placing blame solely of technology, all of which prevents open dialogue on the complexities of bullying and how it impacts teens like Ashley and Chris.


Works Cited

"Background on Cyberbullying."

boyd, danah and Alice Marwick. "Bullying as True Drama." New York Times (September 22, 2011): N.p.


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