Another really interesting point from Emily Bazelon’s book on bullying has got me thinking about how gender dynamics factor into school bullying situations. Bazelon writes:

[When kids bully online] it’s not just the kids who happen to be on the playground who see it–it’s any of hundreds or even thousands of Facebook friends.

The internet multiplies the risk in another way as well. Sitting at the keyboard alone instead of talking face-to-face, often shrouded in anonymity, teenagers (and adults) sometimes strike a pose and write in a kind of text-speak that’s harsher than what they would say out loud. Stripped of tone of voice or eye contact, the meanness often hits harder than intended. Read again by the target, a tossed-off insult can become exponentially more painful. Girls tend to feel this particularly acutely. They spend, on average more time social networking and send more texts–ninety a day compared to fifty for boys–which can mean more gossiping, name-calling and hurting.

Bazelon’s remarks about how the anonymity of the internet multiplies the harshness and the hurt of cyberbullying are interesting, but nothing you probably haven’t heard before.

What’s new to me is the very stark difference between how girls and boys interact on social networks and through text messages. Let’s put aside for a second the fact that it must simply be exhausting to send ninety text messages a day. There seems to be a really dangerous multiplier effect happening here, and it goes like this:

  • the same stimuli (a mean text, an insulting post) elicits more suffering (on average) in girls than boys (this is what the research says, not my opinion)
  • girls have, on average, 40 additional opportunities to encounter said stimuli (to put it another way, if 1 out of every 5 online interactions is negative, the average girl would see 18 a day while the average boy would only see 10)
  • if we say, for example, that girls are 50% more sensitive to upsetting online material than boys, and that they see 80% more upsetting online material, that means in an average day the suffering inflicted on a girl through cyberbullying would be 2.7 times greater than that for a boy in a similar situation
  • many studies show that girls are significantly more likely to either cyberbully or be the target or cyberbullying (see below)

These things put together are a recipe for disaster, and teachers and administrators should pause to consider whether the anti-cyberbullying programs they have in place account for (A) differences in how males and females perceive and respond to cyberbullying (B) differences in how males and females actually cyberbully. I’m not saying that schools should separate students by gender when teaching about cyberbullying, nor am I even saying that teachers and administrators should share these generalizations with students (although looking at the stats with students might bring up interesting and worthwhile conversations).

But I am saying that a foundation in understanding how males and females interact with cyberbullying could help teachers and administrators know what to look for and how to respond when cyberbullying issues do arise.

(*This is a small sample size, but these trends seem to follow the other trends reported in larger studies.)

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