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Monday, September 29, 2008

Online harassment or bullying?

Does online harassment become cyberbullying when it's repeated aggressive behavior? Is it bullying only if it's related to a child's experience at school? Are insults posted in social-network profiles harassment while posting of compromising photos of a peer constitutes bullying? These are tough questions still being debated. What does seem to be emerging is the sense that "bullying" is more severe (causing more emotional distress and potentially involving physical threats) than "harassment." Ultimately, the definition may be as much about the victim as the perpetrator - how capable he or she is of shrugging off the mean behavior. Justin Patchin, co-author of the new book Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard, emailed me about my post on defining cyberbullying last week. He posted a thoughtful response in his own blog at Cyberbullying.us, suggesting that online harassment may by default included the repetition factor just because mean posts and images can be re-posted and shared on the Web and mobile devices. About linking online bullying to offline life, "we agree that those incidents that have proven most hurtful typically involve a personal relationship (the target knows the offender in real life)," Professor Patchin writes. "That doesn’t mean, however, that we should simply disregard those behaviors that are carried out among “strangers” online. They too can result in harm." Absolutely! I also think technology can be used not only to express an existing power imbalance between harasser and victim but also to help *create* the power imbalance a would-be bully wants to set up. While we're on the subject, check out this Las Vegas Sun editorial about how some Nevada schools are intelligently working with student activists to address online harassment in the context of violence and intimidation and to teach conflict resolution. The Sun's editors commend Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE), a national organization that has nearly two dozen chapters in Nevada (here's more on SAVE).

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