Bullying: Just a Hunch

15:39 Thu 03 Dec 2009
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I’ve come across what feels like another wave of articles related to bullying recently. I previously wrote about my thoughts on institutional responses, but this time my focus is on some of the causes, as well as how technical rules are unlikely to eliminate the problem.

danah boyd’s Twitter stream brought to my attention this article on how young (seven- to ten-year-old) kids get around restrictions in kid-oriented virtual worlds. The most interesting ones to me are:

  • Beating language filters.
  • Password-sharing as trust marker (and abuse of trust marker).
  • Using safety features to bully.
  • Abusing abuse reporting (a subset of the previous one, but worth calling out).

Given that language is the basis of almost all online social interaction, beating the language filter is the first thing that more or less any user will try to do. That kids as young as this adopt this approach quickly comes as no surprise. Language is a fundamental tool of self-expression, and attempting to control it is simply bound to run into resistance. When I was a kid, using unapproved language was easy in most of my social environments, because even with adult supervision not everything could be overheard. There was certainly no real capacity for predetermined censorship the way there is in the online realms.

I’m biased in this regard, but I really think that the rapid adoption of circumvention strategies make it utterly pointless to have any kind of language filtering in any online community. The only reasonable counterargument that I can see is this: the presence of the filters demonstrates what the community considers acceptable, and the fact that you have to work around them demonstrates that you know you’re transgressing. This is still problematic where they’re enforced from the top down, however.

The rule most kids are taught (and it’s a good rule, unlike the language ones) is that passwords should never be shared. I suspect that passwords’ secret nature makes them automatically desirable, and their sharing is one of the few ways to unequivocally demonstrate trust in a virtual world (similar to the sharing of secrets in non-virtual worlds). In non-virtual environments, this sharing can lead to abuse via publicizing the secret information; in virtual worlds, possession of a password gives more or less absolute power. This makes me wonder whether kids’ virtual worlds should have multiple password levels so that trusting the wrong person can be more easily recovered from.

The last two are almost trivial in a sense: individuals desiring an outcome in a system will of course use all of the system’s features to achieve their goals. In many respects more features can simply mean more weapons; at the least, any new features need to be weighed carefully and their exploitation potential considered. (This is a good idea for all systems, including economic and legal ones.) Again, I’m biased here, but I don’t see much evidence that “more rules” is a good solution to most problems.

The use of safety features to bully shows clearly that attempts to control behavior will be used in service of other goals, including goals diametrically opposed to those of the rulemakers.

That last point is sadly evident in the next article I want to discuss. Before linking to it, I want to warn that I personally found it highly disturbing and upsetting, and that it covers bullying, suicide, endemic misogyny, disastrous ineptitude, and cruelty.

“Sexting-related bullying cited in Hillsborough teen’s suicide” is a horror story about a 13-year-old girl, Hope Witsell, who hanged herself after suffering widespread abuse from schoolmates based on her having sent a nude photograph of herself to a boy she liked.

The article’s second paragraph states:

Her death is the second in the nation in which a connection between sexting and teen suicide can clearly be drawn.

While this is true, it seems that the part in between the “sexting” and the suicide is the real problem. That part is the bullying, although “bullying” seems awfully mild for what Hope suffered through.

It feels trivializing to link this to the less serious issues from the article on kids circumventing virtual-world controls, but there are similarities—specifically between “sexting” and password-sharing. Both involve an expression of trust, and both carry bad consequences if that trust is abused.

Betrayal of trust is difficult for anyone to handle, and it’s harder for young people given the overwhelming importance of their peer groups and social lives, but on its own can be recovered from. Password sharing has other ill effects, but while people might consider you foolish for doing it, it’s not going to result in widespread condemnation.

Whereas “sexting”, apparently, is. Not only did someone abuse Hope’s trust, but more or less the entire school then considered her fair game for public shaming and humiliation.

Much of the response to the problems around “sexting”[1] seem to focus on the activity itself—i.e. telling people not to do it. While this is in some ways good advice (just like “don’t share your passwords”), a better focus would be “don’t use this or anything else as an excuse to abuse or humiliate people”. It frightens and saddens me considerably that a big chunk of American teen culture seems to think that constant public shaming is the appropriate response to this kind of behavior.

Sexual shaming isn’t new. Nor is hypocrisy (given how common “sexting” seems to be among American teens, a significant number of the abusers likely engage in it, or in soliciting it, or both, themselves). But at least three factors seem to be combining to make the situation worse:

  • Permanence: easy data transfer and storage means that once out there, embarrassing artifacts (such as photos sent during “sexting”) are essentially permanently public.
  • Pressure on sexuality: it’s hard for me to believe, but it appears that sexual shaming of young women is worse now than in the past, and that the social stigma associated with the über-misogynistic brand “slut” is getting more extreme despite alleged increased tolerance and social progress. In addition, Western society is putting ever more pressure on girls to be “sexy”, so that the line between a twisted culture’s definition of “unsexy” and a twisted culture’s definition of ”slutty” is ever narrower.
  • Stratification: it also seems, though it’s hard to measure, that social hierarchies and social exclusion are becoming more extreme, so that it’s worse than ever to be “unpopular”, and this in turns makes teens more desperate to avoid such a fate—making them more willing to victimize others in order to escape that fate themselves.

There’s not much to be done about the first issue. It’s just how things are, and in many ways it doesn’t have to be a negative. In theory we should be able to adjust to that kind of thing, and I’d like to think that the pervasiveness of it might make people more tolerant—but that’s a topic for another post.

The second is just maddening to me. Girls bear the brunt of it, but women generally suffer from what is a simply outrageous double standard that has no justification. It’s a serious indictment of out society and culture that this is getting worse instead of better. I have trouble understanding a lot of it, too—why isn’t the apparent “pornification” of culture making overt female sexuality more acceptable? I know that this is a complicated question, and obviously pornography isn’t a positive depiction of women or female sexuality (although some of it can be), but even so, why hasn’t the increased acceptance of it made a difference?

The article about Hope also covers another teen, Jessie Logan, who also committed suicide following ostracism and humiliation after a “sexting” incident:

She found it harder to endure the humiliation of walking the halls at school, where other students called her a “porn queen,” dumped drinks on her and threw her out of graduation parties.

Why is “porn queen” such a powerful slur? I don’t expect it to be a positive thing for an 18-year-old to be called, but in a country where celebrities manage the release of sex tapes, and manage to retain their celebrity status afterwards, why is it still such a vilification? I hate the idea of anyone using Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton as role models, but—wouldn’t this be one of the positive places to do so? Why is it impossible for the girls being subjected to this kind of bullshit to refer to these well-known women in their defense?

The culture makes it impossible, but I’m wondering just what is doing that. The ongoing emphasis on the “purity” of teen girls is a culprit here, but is (mainly Christian) prudery really such a powerful force?

It doesn’t help in this case that on top of the assaults from her peers, Hope was also punished by her school (for the original sending of the image); no mention is made of punishing those who sent that image on—clearly suggesting that what she did was worse than the betrayals of trust they perpetrated, a rather immoral message.

Reading the article (and about other similar cases) makes it feel like a lost cause, but it’s not: culturally and socially we need to accept that the sex lives of individuals are their individual business, and that unless they’re hurting others, they deserve privacy. What other people do sexually, and what they may appear to “project” in terms of sexuality, should simply not be an excuse for judgment. Why are we judging other people for the things that they do if those things aren’t harmful to others anyway?

The third factor, increased stratification, is quite relevant to this, as it creates incentives for judging others harshly, and to pile on with those judgments. This factor is one of the reasons, I suspect, why “sex-positive” messages aren’t really helping young girls who are being victimized by shaming: if you have a culture dependent on hierarchical social status, that culture will use all ammunition available to measure status, and sexuality, especially for teens, is simply too big a target to resist. Shame isn’t used because anyone involved necessarily thinks that the purportedly shameful acts are “wrong”, but because the pressure to belittle others results in increasingly tight boundaries for acceptable behavior.

So why is the stratification for teens increasing rather than decreasing? There are plenty of reasons for this, and some of them may be economic—economic stratification produces its own pressures—but this is the hunch from the title of this post: decreased autonomy leads to an increase in the importance of status.

Gever Tulley recently brought my attention to “Trashing Teens”, a 2007 interview with psychologist Roger Epstein on the topic of restrictions on teenagers and the effect they have on teens. His basic argument is that adolescence is a recent social construction, one that’s problematically forcing young people to be treated as children when in fact they’re far more competent than children, and restricting them far more than is healthy. American schools, particularly public schools, are getting worse and worse in this regard, and resembling prisons to a greater and greater degree (this is not an exaggeration). Teen activity outside of school seems more and more constrained as well, with teens increasingly forbidden from associating in teen-only groups outside their homes, and with their attempts to socialize online subject to greater and greater levels of adult interference (not always effective interference, but interference nonetheless). Certainly it’s become acceptable in this country to regard parents as irresponsible if they don’t know where their teens are, and what they’re doing, at all times—which, when you think about it, means placing teens under more or less constant surveillance.

Without going into a discussion of what precisely status is—this post is long enough already—my contention is that as you take power away from people, whatever they feel they have left becomes more important to them. In addition, different social structures dole out status in different ways, and the more hierarchical a structure is, the more likely it is to create or enforce status scarcity.

Another way of looking at this is to say that status-hoarding structures have individuals start with zero worth and only gain worth via some set of mechanisms, whereas status-sharing structures view individuals as inherently valuable and provide them with various ways to improve on that initial positive state.

It should be apparent that the more restricted a group’s actions are, the fewer options they have for attaining status. This in itself causes status scarcity. (Imagine 30 people whose only permitted activity is weightlifting. Status will accrue only to those who are good at weightlifting. Imagine the same group whose permitted activities are weightlifting, piano playing, and drawing. Status will now accrue to those good at any one of those activities, and is inherently more equitable.)

I think this applies to economic poverty also: I think that one of the reasons for “street violence” is that as people have less and less, things like reputation matter more and more to them, even in ways that appear ridiculous to outsiders, and that this leads to an increasingly toxic arena where perceived slights become incredibly important.

So, take more away from people and status becomes increasingly important to them; at the same time, constraining their activities creates more status scarcity. American teens are subject to both of these pressures. This leads to obsession with status (usually referred to as “popularity”) and to cut-throat competition for it, which has ill effects for all concerned. It’s possible that the people at the top of the hierarchy benefit, but I suspect this is relatively short term, and that they come away with a markedly impoverished view of what’s important in life—which may not matter to them at all, of course.

As Kant said, freedom is the precondition for acquiring the maturity for freedom, not a gift to be granted when such maturity is reached. This applies to teens as well as to the rest of us, and by heaping restrictions upon children in the name of “protecting them” and then using the toxic conditions created by these “protections” as excuses for further repressive measures, we are doing them immeasurable harm—harm that spreads to the rest of society.

I’m going to be somewhat trite in my conclusion: freedom is the answer. Everyone deserves autonomy, and denial of this autonomy to some will hurt us all.

[1] I can’t bring myself to use that outside of scare quotes. Since it refers to sending a naked/near-naked photo of yourself to someone else, it’s clearly a sexual come-on, but it’s not really sexual activity in the realm of, say, cybersex, being rather more like aggressive flirting—and additionally it doesn’t involving sending a text message, so making it a portmanteau of “sex” and ”texting” is just wrong.

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