Cyberbullying: The Changing Face of the Schoolyard Bully

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I’ll let you in on a little secret. I was an elementary school nerd. I was short, and skinny, and my ears stuck out at the sides like the handles of a yachting trophy. It didn't help that my mom dressed me in matching sweatpants-sweatshirt ensembles, that I had kind of a big mouth, and that I was just generally a pretty strange kid.

Naturally, I also wore the thickest, plastic-framed marble-brown glasses on the market. And because my eyes were still a work in progress, I had the coordination of a drunk puppy.

I was bad at sports and good at school.

In the 1980s, this was the perfect recipe for the garden variety bully-target. And so, I experienced the whole colorful smorgasbord of bullying, from incessant name-calling and hurtful note-passing to spitball loogies and unceremonious de-pantsings in front of the girls. Elementary school was a pretty demoralizing place. Neither the classroom nor the hallway, the schoolyard nor the cafeteria, were particularly safe places for me.

But it wasn't all that bad. At least the bullying ended on school property. Even if the occasionally determined bully put something unseemly in my mailbox or delivered a poorly-masked prank phone call, these actions lacked the broad social structure or public humiliation that made in-school bullying so effective. Without a peer group to impress, a social hierarchy to reinforce, or a reputation to sustain, the bully had little to gain from freelance harassment, so it just wasn't all that common.

Remember, this was the ‘80s. The height of mobile telecommunication at this point was a car-phone that you kept in a big zippered case. It had about 45 seconds of battery life and could be used within 7.5 feet of your car presuming you were in close proximity to the half dozen or so towers scattered throughout the United States. And I didn’t actually have one of those phones…or a car…so….

The whole point is, there wasn’t much in the way of technology that bullies could use to lord over me once I’d braved the walk home from school. The playground was a line beyond which few bullies really had the audacity to cross, lest they should come face to face with a protective parent or even a local constable (We didn’t really call them constables in the ‘80s. I ain’t that old).

But maybe I'm kind of old because, man, things have really changed. Bullying is so very 21st Century these days. It’s web-mediated, persists without borders, always accommodated by an engaged audience.. Social media wasn’t a thing when I was a kid. Getting torpedoed by paper airplane that, when unfolded, reveals an unflattering illustration of you? Don’t get me wrong. I can tell you from experience what an indignity this was. But as indignities go, such gestures lack permanency, audience, and the interactive elements that constitute a virtual lynch mob.

Today, social media can be readily weaponized. And if a kid is the target for bullying in school, chances are that this targeting extends into an online world that is just as real for today’s youths and far more omnipresent than anything Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers ever experienced in school.

The Whole Point of My Personal Disclosure

The internet and social media have altered the bullying landscape dramatically, removing the school-bound borders that once contained such behavior. Today, for those who are the victims of bullying, there is no reprieve at the sounding of the school bell. Bullying can persist in perpetuity, and with an audience, thanks to the unyielding omnipresence of the web and the cultural consequentiality of social media.

This evolution in bullying hasn’t just changed the scope and nature of bullying. It has also transformed the likely perpetrator, moving us away from that cliche explored so thoroughly in ‘80s media of the angry and violent jock, and toward a bully that is more comfortable rendering his or her attacks from the safety of a mobile web device than from within the halls of school.

Here, we explore this evolution, and the impact that bullying is having on school culture today. To be sure, bullying takes place everywhere. The adult world is no different. Bullies have carved out a pretty substantial space of operation in personal relationships, places of business and even presidential politics. And in fact, much of the bullying that we see in schools probably owes its existence to bullying within the home. Parental or sibling abuse can be a direct corollary to one’s tendency toward abusive behavior in school.

However, the context of school is of greatest interest to us because for most, this will be the first major foray into public socialization. If we wish to diminish the impact of bullying in the larger world, it begins by raising our children in educational settings where they don’t feel their safety or emotional security threatened by patterned abuse.

This exploration takes on bullying as an educational phenomenon, and one that has undergone a considerable evolution in the last few decades. Indeed, so much has changed that parents who went to school just a generation ago may not truly understand the nature, scope, and pervasiveness of bullying today. But things are quite different today, and the stakes are quite high. For some, bullying is a matter of life and death. It is incumbent upon us as students, parents, educators and members of our communities to understand the changes and confront bullying wherever it rears its angry, insecure, abusive head.

But before we come to fuller understanding of how bullying has evolved to its present day form, let’s take a little journey through time, back to the Golden Age of the Cinema Bully, to a time when the schoolyard aggressor was a towering figure in popular culture.

Biff Tannen and Bullying Before the Web

Back in the ‘80s, if you were a jerk and wished to channel that jerkiness into patterned abuse of others in your peer group, the qualifications were pretty straightforward. You had to be some combination of physically imposing, athletically gifted, wealthy, and physically attractive. It also didn’t hurt to have a nice head of hair or to know your way around a regatta.

You didn’t have to be all of these things, but based on the cultural proclivities that made the muscular-thighed, power-tie donning, stock-ticker-checking yuppie the king of the ‘80s, some combination of these features gave you the stature to pick on others. And in an era where “Greed is good,” picking on others was not entirely frowned upon in the mainstream either.

Now, as we will explore in the next section, studies on bullying were pretty scarce at the time. Social scientists had not yet come to regard bullying as an issue of public health. In truth, the most consequential studies on the psyche of the 1980s bully come to us from archetypal teen movies, most particularly those that co-starred the eminent feather-coiffed WASP, William Zabka.

Teen movies were pretty big in the ‘80s, which meant that unless the villain was a loathsome principal, it was almost invariably bully. As you read these words, you are probably rifling through a mental rogues gallery of ‘80s nerd-beaters. Among them are, no doubt, the late Bill Paxton as militant older brother, Chet, in Weird Science; William Zabka’s leg-sweeping Cobra Kai captain, Johnny from The Karate Kid; the sweater-wrapped young Reaganite played by James Spader in Pretty in Pink; William Zabka’s jerky bodybuilder in Just One of the Guys; the hulking Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds (played gamefully by one-time San Diego Charger Donald Gibb); or Back to School’s condescending champion diver Chas Osborn, who was, of course, played by William Zabka. (By the way, if you went by a name like Chas or Chet in the ‘80s, you were most definitely a bully).

Clearly, William Zabka ran the table when it came to reading for bully parts in the ‘80s. And his performances are part of the composite persona that we attribute to bullies when we reach for the most immediate cliche. But when it comes to genre-defining roles, nothing comes close to Biff Tannen.

Back to the Future’s arch-antagonist, Hill Valley’s ever-present and ever-pugnacious pun-mangler, Marty McFly’s foil in time travel, and a surprisingly worthy adversary considering his mental and emotional limitations, Biff was portrayed by Thomas F. Wilson. Wilson was a fairly accomplished actor who, in interview, rankles somewhat at the fact that he is pretty much only known for this role.

Truth is, though, whether slathered in makeup as middle-aged Biff in the mid-80s, towering over his schoolmates at young Biff in the mid-50s, or jacking his ska pants up to his nipples as old Biff in the version of 2015 where they had flying cars, Wilson channeled a figure that persists in each of our psyches. He was the bully incarnate at any age.

It is notable that the archetypal 1980s bully actually attended high school in the 1950s. Indeed, Biff Tannen embodies so much of what it meant to be a bully in the decades before social media. Physically imposing, not particularly bright, inexplicably entitled, inherently violent, abusive toward women, absent any detectable self-awareness or human empathy, and capable of incredible misdeeds when left unchecked.

(Speaking of, if the middle-aged, casino-magnate version of Biff who inhabits the dystopian alternate timeline in Back to the Future II strikes some eerie parallels to real life , that’s probably because Biff really, truly was modeled after your current President of the United States.

When asked about Biff’s parallels to Donald Trump during a Back to the Future event in 2015, writer Bob Gale revealed that “We thought about it when we made the movie!’ Are you kidding? You watch Part II again and there’s a scene where Marty confronts Biff in his office and there’s a huge portrait of Biff on the wall behind Biff, and there’s one moment where Biff kind of stands up and he takes exactly the same pose as the portrait? Yeah.”

Biff also met another core qualification as an archetypal bully. High school Biff (and his suspiciously similar-looking future grandson Griff) traveled with packs of lackeys. This was an important feature for the ‘80s bully, a group of nameless henchmen who lent legitimacy to his behavior. (Btw, for film trivia buffs, one of Griff’s nameless lackeys is actually future Titanic co-star Billy Zane).

At any rate, these lackeys kind of reinforce something important about bullies in any era. As an UPROXX article on the archetypal 80s bully points out, “the crew that hovers around the teen movie bully is primarily made up of a bunch of nameless hanger-ons. They’re mostly there to stand around the bully and utter out lines like ‘Hey, check out the dweeb’ or ‘He’s getting away!’ Pretty much any randos will do as long as their hair isn’t more stylish than the main bully.”

This is an important feature because the success of a bully’s tactics depends on some level of social reinforcement, whether it is the solidification of one’s leadership within a small group or the elevation of one’s profile in a larger social construct like a school’s popularity hierarchy. And because Biff Tannen in particular had a tendency to butcher easy turns of phrase and struggled enough in school that he needed poor George McFly to do his homework for him, it was obviously very important that he was insulated from criticism by the herd of unwavering supporters that made up his posse.

But beyond this little shred of psychoanalysis, we are given over to little reflection concerning Biff’s motives, or that of any ‘80s bully really. We just assume that the bully is not a complex creature, that its insecurities and motivations are very much surface level. In some cases, it’s obvious that the bully has a jerk for a father. In other cases, he clearly requires the affection of the opposite sex in order to feel validated. And in other cases still, it just seems to be simple law of the jungle: The strong bully the weak in order to establish basic social hierarchy (an idea we’ll explore in a little more depth in the next section).

But in the 80s, we didn’t question it much. The reason the bully was the constant antagonist in ‘80s cinema was because it was something to which we could all relate. Thomas F. Wilson said as much during a Hollywood Reporter interview in 2015. He explained that, as “a thin and sickly kid, I was pushed around and beaten up by bullies throughout my childhood, until I grew bigger than everybody and it stopped…I knew very well how they operate, and specifically the joy they take in scaring people. I’d stared them in the face so often that it wasn’t particularly challenging to do an impression.”

It was quite the convincing impression, but then, we take some joy in knowing that cinematic bullies like Biff Tannen will always lose to plucky heroes like Marty McFly. Half the fun is in rooting against this guy who represents all the bullies you’ve ever known. Besides, in the ‘80s, it was convention that a bully should be played for laughs. He was bumbling and pathetic in his own way. The audience knew it. And the audience could take comfort in the fact that it would only be a matter of time before justice was swiftly delivered by the perfect convergence of unlikely events, possibly interceded at some point by a musical montage.

In other words, it was all fun and games. Bullies were scary, but they were also stupid so it was ok to have a few cathartic laughs at their expense.

Things changed pretty dramatically in the coming decade though. With the events that transpired at Columbine High school in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, the subject of bullying became a whole lot less funny. It’s probably not a coincidence that bullying is no longer fodder for humor, but for hard research.

Columbine: The Inflection Point on Bullying

American studies in bullying are actually a relatively new phenomenon. Though this mode of schoolyard intimidation and harassment has surely been a reality for most of human history, there had been little investigation into its sociological implications or the psychological consequences of this behavior, that is until Columbine.

On April 20, 1999, two seniors named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered their school with a cache of firearms and committed one of the worst massacres in American history. After claiming the lives of 12 students and one teacher, the perpetrators took their own lives. In the dark aftermath of these events, the national conversation naturally turned to gun violence, and somewhat less naturally, toward violent video games and Marilyn Manson’s music.

But as the conversation wore on, the topic of bullying increasingly emerged as a subject of necessary discussion. Were Harris and Klebold bullied by their peers, ostracized by mockery, alienated by derision? Were their unspeakable actions intended as retaliation, not just against their tormentors, but also against the very social structure that saw them disenfranchised to the point of becoming radically violent?

Some debate would persist over whether these boys were really the victims of bullying and further, whether this could have been the true motive for their actions. But this marked the beginning of a more serious and academic investigation into bullying, its effects, and the increasing need for adults to take notice of the dynamics that might have fomented such terrible events.

It was no longer sufficient to simply say that bullying is a natural part of growing up. Of course, this platitude is true, but it doesn’t do much to help. Fortunately, over the nearly-two decades since Columbine, the social science communities have given considerably more attention and resources to the issue of bullying. We understand the subject with far greater depth today than we did during a time when bullies were mostly one-dimensional movie villains.

Studying the Bully

The premise of so many ‘80s movies was that a bully is, if nothing else, a creature lacking in complexity. But the expansive body of research on the subject of bullying today suggests this impression is reductive and problematic.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines bullying as “a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions.”

The APA includes one additional characteristic in its concise definition, asserting that “The bullied individual typically has trouble defending him or herself and does nothing to ‘cause’ the bullying.”

In other words, the old-fashioned way of dealing with bullying--which generally entailed advising the victim to simply stand up for his or herself—reflects neither a clear sense of what bullying really is, nor does it present an adequate solution to the problem of bullying. But with a growing body of research on the subject, we are coming to increasingly understand bullying as being facilitated by an unequal power dynamic.

Scientific American explains that “This asymmetry of power may be physical or psychological, and the aggressive behavior may be verbal (eg, name-calling, threats), physical (eg, hitting), or psychological (eg, rumors, shunning/exclusion). The key elements of this definition are that multiple means can be employed by the bully or bullies, intimidation is the goal, and bullying can happen on a one-on-one or group basis (Nansel et al, 2001).”

This definition underscores the sense of helplessness that might have inclined bullying victims like the Columbine shooters to retaliate in the extreme. The events in Littleton, Colorado marked an inflection point in our collective understanding of bullying. As shock and outrage turned into the quest for greater understanding, bullying was shoved into the spotlight.

One year after Columbine, the U.S. Secret Service conducted an analysis “of 37 premeditated school shootings found that bullying, which some of the shooters described ‘in terms that approached torment,’ played a major role in more than two-thirds of the attacks.”

And that type of response to patterned bullying is not extraordinary. Without condoning violent retaliation, one can easily see how even the brightest and most promising victim of bullying can be pushed only so far. A 2006 study focused its research on an oft-targeted demographic in the cultural pecking order of public school--gifted students. According to the study, from Gifted Child Quarterly, more than two-thirds of academically talented 8th graders reported experiencing bullying at school. Of those, nearly one-third said they harbored violent thoughts as a result of the bullying. (The article in the Washington Post offers a number of compelling finds about the unique vulnerability of gifted children to bullying. It’s worth a read).

Of course, harboring such thoughts of violence is a long way from the actions that the Columbine shooters ultimately took. But it underscores the broader danger represented by the pattern of bullying.

As the perpetrators of Columbine demonstrated to horrific effect, the violence of bullying can beget further and yet more extreme violence. Those who engage in bullying tactics may themselves be victims of bullying or unequal power dynamics. Often, bullies are inclined to seize power from others to compensate for the sense of disempowerment felt in their personal or home life. Others still may simply only know how to express themselves through violence, emotional abuse, and aggression as a consequence of their exposure to these conditions, as well as the absence of a loving, secure or nurturing formative environment.

This underscores the conclusion offered in an article from the New Yorker. Namely, “Longitudinal work shows that bullies and victims can switch places: there is an entire category of bully-victims—people who are victims in one set of circumstances and perpetrators in another.”

These studies find that those who are disempowered by bullying may attempt to be relieved of this circumstance by establishing an unequal power dynamic in a separate relationship. But it should also bear noting, especially as we consider the ways that bullying has evolved in recent years, that such patterns of violence or abuse need not be present in the background of a bully. Because bullying is often used as a way to accord one’s self greater social status by placing others beneath him or her, the simple quest to achieve or maintain popularity can be a powerful enough motive to engage in patterned abuse.

Our Animal Nature

For all the research conducted to explain bullying, these is something about the behavior that simply aligns with the lesser qualities of human nature. In a 2005 study documented by Scientific American, researchers measured the presence of the physical and psychological symptoms related to being bullied in 28 distinct nations. Though they found variances in the level of bullying, each country saw some measure and form of this behavior. To the researchers, these findings confirmed a certain universality to bullying, an indication that bullying is not necessarily distinct to one culture or another but that it is more likely “part of our normal behavior repertoire, it is part of the human condition.”

In fact, research suggests that bullying is not merely a dimension of the human condition, that it is quite commonplace in the animal kingdom and that those who are on the receiving end of such treatment exhibit many of the same negative psychological and sociological consequences as their human counterparts. For instance, “Rats who suffered from bullying-like behaviors were less likely to drink water or consume other resources (Vidal et al, 2011). Mice that suffered repeated social defeats were more anxious and experienced changes in brain chemistry (Kinsey et al, 2007). Bullying-like behaviors extend beyond rodents, and labs, appearing in many species, including other primates.”

Indeed, as with schoolyard law, those who are bigger and stronger often rise to the top of naturally hierarchical animal societies. Among chimpanzees, for instance, males form relationships of friendship and dominance with one another using intimidation and displays of aggression to assert power.

This behavior isn’t just commonplace. It is actually a defining feature of chimpanzee society and an important part of coming of age there within. Adolescent male chimpanzees in particular are a typical target for full-grown adult chimps, largely because their smaller size and stature makes them easy prey for those seeking to assert their dominance. As Scientific American explains, “in short, adolescent males are almost continually bullied as they attempt to join the male social world.”

For male chimpanzees, bullying is just a part of growing up. For adolescent human males, this experience will sound somewhat familiar, even if this behavior can often take on friendlier parameters such as jocular name-calling, chop-busting, and roughhousing among pals. In the vast majority of cases, for boys and chimps alike, this bullying is surface-level and fairly harmless.

But in both societies, things can turn grim and dangerous when social groups gang up. Research among chimps has shown that in instances where a victim of bullying does not conform to social norms, others may gang up and inflict serious, even deadly violence, on the outcast. In other words, The Karate Kid’s Johnny Lawrence wasn’t too much of a threat on his own. But with the Cobra Kai backing him, he was likely to put you in a body bag.

But here, says Scientific American, is where things between humans and other primates differ most essentially: the power of language. The ability to use words to hurt others, to create lasting social impressions within peer groups, and to combine abstract language with action can all have a devastating psychological impact on the victim. Gossip, say researchers, is a powerful and distinguishing feature of bullying in human societies and its impact can feel inescapable for the victim.

Contrary to actual, physical confrontation, linguistic bullying, gossip, the spreading of falsehoods, or the distortion of truths are all strategies of bullying that remove the afflicting party from any actual danger. The advent of social media has only further distanced this party from the victim. As Scientific American explains, “It is not anonymity that texting and online interactions provide, but rather the opportunity for individuals to distance themselves from potential conflict and risk that provides them with a platform to be cruel.”

In the nearly two decades that have followed Columbine, the study of bullying has evolved, but nowhere near as dramatically as the nature of bullying itself. If Harris and Klebold lived in that classic nerd-stuffed-in-a-locker era of bullying, they truly had no idea how much worse, more pervasive, and more intrusive bullying could actually become.

These conditions have also transformed the archetypal bully, or perhaps one might say, these conditions have democratized the field of bullying. Thanks to technology, you don’t have to be as big as Ogre or as brutal as Biff Tannen to be a bully.

The Virtual Hallway and the Technological Evolution of the Cyberjerk

In spite of the fact that you hear it mentioned so much more frequently in public spaces, bullying has not grown into a more prevalent social problem. It’s just that it’s become a more pervasive one. According to the New Yorker, “now, the bullying dynamic is harder to contain and harder to ignore. If you’re harassed on your Facebook page, all of your social circles know about it; as long as you have access to the network, a ceaseless stream of notifications leaves you vulnerable to victimhood. Bullying may not have become more prevalent—in fact, a recent review of international data suggests that its incidence has declined by as much as ten per cent around the world. But getting away from it has become more difficult.”

For a basic breakdown on the prevalence of bullying, the 2014-2015 School Crime Supplement produced by the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that, nationwide, 21% of students between 12-18 experienced bullying. With respect to online bullying, a 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 16% of all high school students had been bullied electronically in the previous 12 months.

But again, it is the pervasiveness of bullying today that gives it its power. An article in The Atlantic explains just how deeply social media usage permeates the lives of today’s teens and, consequently, just how significant the impact of online abuse can be from a social and cultural perspective. Today, that which occurs on social media can be every bit as real and consequential as that which takes place in the corporeal. All students must navigate the daily gauntlet that is high school’s social pecking order. So when reputations are built and destroyed on Facebook, there are tangible real-world consequences.

And yet, teachers and administrators may often overlook the severity of these consequences or lack a clear sense of how to confront the root problem. The Atlantic tells the story of a 12-year-old girl that illustrates just how unclear the path forward is for educators.

According to The Atlantic, the girl in question decided one day to follow the Twitter feed of a 17-year-old boy she didn’t know. She was quickly offended by the harsh language used in his posts so she resolved to unfollow him. In retaliation, the boy and three of his friends flamed the girl’s Twitter feed with threats of violence and gang-rape. They also advised the young girl to commit suicide, even going so far as to offer several detailed suggestions on how to carry out the act.

Members of the web hacktivist group Anonymous caught wind of this abuse and decided to intervene. They uncovered the boys’ real names and traced them to a high school in Abilene, Texas. What happened next underscores why it’s so hard to confront this type of bullying.

Anonymous “doxxed” the boys, releasing their identities to the internet for mob justice. They also contacted Joey Light, superintendent of Abilene schools. Light contacted local law enforcement. As the Atlantic reports, an “officer investigated, and determined that the boy hadn’t done anything to cause problems at school. That meant Light couldn’t punish him, he said. ‘I realize bullying takes a lot of forms, but our student couldn’t have harmed this girl physically in any way,’ he continued. ‘If you can’t show a disruption at school, the courts tell us, that’s none of our business.’”

Light continued that “I don’t have the technical expertise or the time to keep track of every kid on Facebook or Twitter or whatever.”

The superintendent’s admission that little could be done about student behavior on social media platforms is troubling. This orientation sends the signal to bullies and their victims alike that there is no adult supervision in cyberspace, that in such contexts, bullies are free to act out their worst impulses and that the victims of bullying have nobody to turn to for support, assistance, or protection.

Perhaps even more troubling though is the superintendent’s poor grasp on the potentially devastating impact of cyberbullying. His observation that the boy in question couldn’t actually cause harm to his victim is an assumption belied by countless teen suicide headlines. These headlines seem, more frequently all the time, to come with some online bullying backstory. The boys from Abilene, Texas didn’t hesitate to advise another person to take her own life, knowing nothing of her emotional state or the likelihood that she might actually do so. But online bullying has been linked to a rash of teen suicides in recent years. And just as their tormentors have used social media to extend the reach of their abuse, the victims have often used the same platforms to express their anguish or offer their final goodbyes.

Scientific American tells the story of Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year old boy from Williamsville North High in Buffalo, New York. Jamey was the target of bullying and posted videos on YouTube aimed at coping with his pain. He found himself unable to reconcile this pain, and took his own life in September of 2011.

For parents and educators, this seems unimaginable. It’s easy to tell a kid that things will get better. In fact, Jamey, who was targeted by fellow students for his sexual orientation, even released a heartbreaking YouTube video months before his suicide assuring himself and others that life would get better. Sadly, the torment he suffered was simply too encompassing to overcome.

But how could a bright and optimistic kid with a strong sense of perspective become so deeply shackled by his bullies that this seemed the only way out? Incidences like Jamey Rodemeyer’s suicide—and countless others that we won’t catalogue here simply for the sake of decorum—demonstrate just how encompassing and inescapable online bullying can feel.

Online Mob Mentality

If it was as simple as just a few bad eggs using social media as a platform for bullying, perhaps there would be a limit to the impact of these words. But just like the 1980s bully, who traveled with a pack of flunkies whose only purpose was to lend legitimacy to their behavior, the social media bully is backed by a seemingly enveloping quorum of flunkies, those who see gang-bullying as an opportunity to elevate themselves through the debasement of others or merely to blend with a large group of others doing the same thing.

In the context of Facebook, this type of systematic and unyielding abuse, the kind that extends beyond the walls of one’s school, seeping into every part of a child’s psyche, can feel inescapable and devastating. And according to a 2012 Consumer Report, 800,000 minors reported to having been bullied on Facebook. As Consumer Reports explained, “In the early days of the Internet, the primary danger to kids seemed to be from predatory adults. But it turns out that the perils adults pose, although they can be devastating, are rare. The far more common problem kids face when they go online comes from other kids: the hum of low-grade hostility, punctuated by truly damaging explosions, that is called cyberbullying.”

Cyberbullying is distinct from bullying in a time when the Biff Tannens and William Zabkas roamed the earth because it makes the act of bullying more accessible on multiple levels. First and foremost, the bully now has the ability to reach the victim with his or her abuse 24/7. But it also means that the bully has access to an audience, one even larger and more encompassing than the small crowd of onlookers that might happen to witness a bullying incident in the lunchroom or lavatory.

Every cruel remark, biting shred of gossip or humiliating photo can be part of a gathering snowball of posts, comments, and reactive emojis. Suddenly, it’s not just Biff Tannen calling you a butthead in front of his cackling goons. Now, it’s Biff Tannen taking a compromising photo of you in the gym locker room, posting it on Instagram, and inviting your classmates to offer unflattering assessments of your physique. It isn’t just the shame and humiliation of that one moment. It becomes on unending humiliation that, because it is now on Social Media, doesn’t just play out in front of your classmates, but likewise in front of the family and friends in your extended circle.

The humiliation of being targeted by bullying is magnified today by the fact that everybody is witness to it, and that the evidence of your shame remains splayed across the web for all to see. For those victims who have struggled to cope, and particularly those that have taken the most extreme recourse of committing violence upon themselves or others, the encompassing nature of online abuse can make the victim feel isolated and alone. This sense of being unwanted is a real danger, especially within the all-important social constructs of middle and high school.

The Democratization of Bullying

Cyberbullying has altered the bullying landscape in other fairly dramatic ways. The Biff Tannens of the world are not extinct, but they have some serious competition from those who use cyberbullying as the primary channel for their abusive behavior. The key features of the ‘80s bully, from athletic prowess or imposing size to obvious wealth and fantastic hair, need no longer apply.

The distance afforded by computer- or mobile device-mediated bullying emboldens those who otherwise lack the physical stature or courage to engage in face-to-face bullying. The story of Tyler Clementi is a tragic demonstration of just how bullying has changed. Clementi was a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey. On September 19, 2010, his roommate Dharun Ravi set up a webcam in their shared dorm to secretly film Clementi kissing another man. Ravi joined floormate Molly Wei in her room down the hall and watched the tryst.

Ravi subsequently posted about the incident on his Twitter account and promised his followers that he would be broadcasting a second tryst between Clementi and his friend. The broadcast never occurred because Clementi, upon learning of the violation, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on September 22, 2010.

The Clementi story is cautionary on many levels. Certainly, it reveals the heightened threat of bullying faced by LGBTQ students, many of whom are still coming to terms with their identity. Likewise, it reveals the power of social media to humiliate and shame bullying victims in a manner far more public and permanent than was ever previously possible.

But there is more to this story. Particularly, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei do not in any way fit the Biff Tannnen bully mould. Neither physically imposing nor uniquely popular, and lacking the inherent brutality of the traditional bully, Ravi and Wei were empowered by the feeling of remoteness afforded them through social media. Even as Ravi shared living space with Clementi--and lacked the courage to ever engage his roommate on any social level, confrontational or otherwise--he found it far easier to debase and humiliate Clementi from the safety of a computer just down the hallway.

Today, the bully cuts quite a different figure than the imposing one embodied by Biff Tannen. The differentiated power dynamic that defines a bullying relationship can now be obtained through web usage that is simultaneously savvy and savage. In other words, one need not be a jock to engage in bullying today. One must only have a computer, a social media presence, and the will to cause emotional harm to others. Bullying no longer fits an easy cliche, which makes it that much harder to prevent.

It’s not as easy as it once was to caricature the bully. The archetypal 1980s bully? He’s gone the way of landline telephone, which is to say that you see him every once in awhile, but not like you used to. Today, bullies can take on so many shapes and sizes. The skinny kid who might have been pelted with wet gym socks in the 1980s could just as easily be the hidden figure behind a dastardly cyberbullying campaign today.

The Biff Tannens and William Zabkas of the world were nothing if not easy to spot. Today’s bully feeds off of the ability to inflict harm from a safe, possibly even anonymous distance.

Making the World a Nicer Place

Bullying comes from a lot of different places: the desire to advance one’s social status; the sense of control gained from disempowering another; an unconscious response to a feeling of disempowerment in one’s own life; an underdeveloped or absent sense of human empathy…

Whatever its root cause, the article in Scientific American reaches the troubling conclusion that it really is in our nature, that bullying is an animalistic impulse by which we--and countless other species--jockey for status. Humanity is hierarchical by instinct, the research suggests. Bullying is a manifestation of that impulse.

As the article reveals, chimpanzees use posturing and sometimes aggressive displays of dominance in very much the same way that adolescent boys do. In both cases, this behavior is commonplace and though not necessarily pleasant, may also not be all that harmful. It is when those of dominant stature gang up, when they use tactics of brute force to ostracize and isolate their victims, when no line is drawn between the seizure of power and the systematic debasement of their victims, that true harm can be inflicted.

And just as human language has the power to amplify and give nuance to that harm, so too does technology amplify and give further nuance to the harm that verbal bullying can inflict.

But then, there is an important finding couched in this article. Namely that the way this impulse manifests is very much a function of culture. Such is to say that bullying, in and of itself, is not cultural. It is inherent to the human condition. However, just how virulent that bullying can become? Well that is a cultural matter, which means that it can be made to evolve.

Scientific American offers a useful starting point, observing that “The tendency to bully, or coerce, others is natural and deeply rooted in our evolutionary history, and emerges in any group of toddlers playing freely. However, when cultures condone and in some cases celebrate violence and aggression, while suppressing or demonizing aspects of humanity that are equally natural such as homosexuality, they unwittingly give license to and encourage bullies.”

In other words, the best way to limit the severity and impact of bullying is to foster a culture that is kinder and more accepting. And simply stated, why shouldn’t that be the goal?

There will always be Biff Tannens and cyberbullies. There will always be those who seek power by disempowering others, those who gain gratification from the suffering of others, and those who are unwitting links in an endless cycle of violence.

But the more effectively we instill values of kindness, courage and acceptance in our children at home and in school, the more readily they will stand up to bullying in all of its forms.

Of course, we also realize that we aren’t living in a fantasy land. Bullying is indeed a fact of life. Therefore, we also recognize the practical need to confront bullying as it plays out in real time. Consider the array of resources below for research, advocacy and support if you or somebody you know is the target of bullying.

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