What better day than Safer Internet Day to take cyberbullying prevention and intervention to the next level – or at least break the discussion about it wide-open? And just four days after the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child brought digital rights into the Convention on the Rights of the Child. “In relation to the digital environment, it’s a game changer,” writes psychology professor Sonia Livingstone, lead drafter of the Committee’s General Comment 25, which accomplishes this essential task of syncing the 31+-year-old Convention up with the digital age. What a moment this is for people under 18 worldwide – and all those who love them!
So what does the General Comment have to do with cyberbullying and dignity? You mean, besides that it’s about youth digital rights and that the Convention itself enshrines their rights of protection (along with those of participation and provision)? If that’s not enough, consider two things:
- The fact that the Convention mentions children’s “dignity” eight times (in accord with the UN Charter, recognizing “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” as the CRC states); “the concept of human dignity is a central concept in many legal systems”; and human dignity and human rights go hand-in-hand. “One cannot be understood without the other,” writes Prof. Willy Moka-Mubelo at Loyola University of Congo. “The importance of human rights and the requirement to respect everyone’s rights is based on the notion of human dignity… [which is] considered to be the foundation of human rights.” It’s sad that the United States is the only country on the planet not to have ratified the UN (yet), but this needn’t deter bullying prevention practitioners in the US from considering the application of dignity theory to their work (more on that in a moment), because of the opportunity this represents right now….
- The opportunity to take cyberbullying (and bullying) prevention to the next level at a time of growing frustration with the lack of progress we’re seeing, not to mention a time of contention, migration and movements calling for greater social justice. This is in no way to dismiss the outstanding work that has already been done in the bullying prevention field, but rather to ground future prevention and intervention work in an almost universally adopted principle of the dignity and rights of all children (as well as all human beings).
But let’s back up and consider what “dignity” means.
Dignity is the innate worth of every human being, which, unlike respect, does not have to be earned. As such, it is a birthright. We can think of dignity as the opposite of humiliation, which implies reducing a person in others’ eyes, Dr. Tijana Milosevic and I write in the National Anti-Bullying Centre’s blog (Dublin City University) for Safety Internet Day.
We suggest that, in order to get at the root of cyberbullying, we adults need to get at what causes the aggressive behavior children engage in online (and offline), address the inclinations and contextual conditions behind social aggression and public humiliation and teach children about their own and their peers’ innate dignity – not to mention model the honoring of each person’s dignity for our children.
I won’t re-post our whole article here, but don’t miss the parts about “false dignity” and “rankism” – terms coined by the dignity scholars we’re indebted to – and the role these phenomena play in cyberbullying. Meanwhile, here are two hypothetical but common examples of social aggression we include:
Steven, 14, posts a video of himself dancing on a social media platform. He loves to dance. Though he doesn’t consider himself to be good at it, he’s trying to improve. He’s very insecure and doesn’t have a strong support group among his peers. Yet, to his credit, Steven tries to get out of his comfort zone and explore who he could become by posting the video. A lack of a sense of dignity and self-worth might be motivating his actions too. Subsequently, he gets laughed at and humiliated in comments by his peers; someone remixes his video into a derisive meme, which goes viral; response videos mocking him are created by other peers. What drives these actions from Steven’s peers? It could be said that some are doing it “just for fun,” that some people just like to be mean, that nothing can be done about it – and that group dynamics is a factor too. But consider also that some might be commenting because they’re equally insecure and didn’t have the courage to post their own dance video, even though they may have wanted to; and other insecure bystanders might be commenting abusively to increase their own status in a group of their peers. All of these potential reasons for dignity violations are related to a lack of one’s self-worth and seeking false dignity, based on “the belief that our worthiness [even our validation] comes from external sources,” as conceptualized by Dr. Donna Hicks at Harvard University, and from trying to make others “less than” oneself.
Lynne, 17, is gaining popularity, as reflected in more and more attention she’s getting on Instagram. A close friend of hers, Kerry, is increasingly jealous and cannot communicate that to Lynne. She does not feel good about herself as compared to her friend anymore. She invites a close group of friends to a sleepover and deliberately neglects to invite Lynne. She even shares a few very subtle negative comments with other girls about Lynne’s makeup and looks. Lynne finds out about Kerry’s sleepover through a photo on Instagram. It seems like other girlfriends are starting to act a little distant too. She feels hurt and starts to question her Instagram activity. She posts less, overthinks each post and worries. Is Lynne a victim, and should she be treated as such? She probably would not want to consider herself or be described as a victim – it could negatively affect her sense of self-worth, especially since victims of bullying tend to have lower social status. Let alone tell her parents, who she believes would only make a mountain out of a molehill.
Lynne’s case doesn’t even meet the basic definition of cyberbullying; it is not repeated and the social exclusion is not overt (her peers had not tagged Lynne to show her she was on the outs). Kerry may not even think she’s doing all this to hurt Lynne; she might be acting instinctively to protect and strengthen her own sense of self. Some scholars would argue that Lynne needs to build resilience, and this is a good opportunity to do so – after all, there will be many jealousies and betrayals in life. This is certainly true, but our point is different: Why should adults posit such situations as a normal part of the growing up process? Why would Kerry need to trample over a peer’s dignity to feel better about herself? Why can’t we see both Kerry and Lynne as having dignity, regardless of their looks, successes, popularity, etc. – and help them and their peers see that?
Looking at these scenarios in the context of dignity theory gives rise to some important questions about past approaches to bullying and cyberbullying and how we might move forward:
- Do we default to accepting these belittling behaviors because we see them as inherent to human nature and group dynamics, and therefore inevitable?
- Can we rather think of belittling or rankist behaviors as a pattern of behavior that humans are socialized into rather than inherent to being human (or at least a blend of socialized behavior, environmental context and human nature)?
- Does our collective struggle to resolve the longstanding problem of bullying/cyberbullying stem in part from our confusion over these questions, expressed in what we model for children through our own social behaviors and confusion thereof?
- Is resilience development actually bullying prevention or is it a fortification against bullying and dignity violation that we’ve accepted as inevitable – in effect, a stop-gap measure to use while we figure out effective prevention and intervention?
- Do we accept the notion that, in terms of child development, resilience comes only with adversity, so we both vilify and accept social cruelty at the same time, sending our children confusing mixed signals, e.g., “Don’t be mean’ and ‘what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger’?”
- However our field might answer these questions, we propose that giving them thoughtful consideration is vital to moving toward solutions to this social problem, because how we think of the behaviors illustrated in the above scenarios will influence the design of interventions and solutions that we deem effective.
So coming back to the two incidents with Steven and Lynne and thinking about their protection and participation rights, as well as their dignity, based on the dignity theory framework, how would things go differently? What would social relations look like if we were to teach young people about their dignity and that of all human beings? Steven might have been more aware that he was posting a video in order to receive validation from others and choose not to. He might also have felt safe to be himself, knowing that others would be less likely to belittle him for it. Kerry might’ve been happy for the attention her friend received, knowing that it does not undermine her own sense of self-worth. She might not have felt the need to put Lynne down and, in turn, Lynne might have felt safe and accepted to continue participating online.
“Humankind has reached a boiling point,” write the publishers at Dignity Press in the overview of Evelin Linder’s book Honor, Humiliation and Terror: An Explosive Mix and How We Can Defuse It with Dignity. Don’t we all see this – and the urgent need it represents to help our children realize their own and each other’s dignity and digital rights, with ever greater adoption of technology, a reported mental health crisis among youth, children returning to school as the pandemic slowly subsides and heightened social tensions in and between societies? Let’s explore a different, more holistic, approach to preventing social aggression online and offline, adopt the dignity framework for cyberbullying prevention, uphold youth digital rights universally – the US included – and have even more to celebrate on Safer Internet Day 2022!
Please note: The idea of bringing dignity theory to bullying/cyberbullying prevention was all Tijana’s. I’ve been following her work in that regard since I read in her 2017 book Protecting Children Online? that she adopted dignity theory as the framework for the book. Using it as a framework for cyberbullying prevention – not to mention hate speech among social media users of all ages and social aggression at school and in the workplace – has made complete sense to me ever since. So I was honored when Tijana invited me to work with her on the paper I refer/link to above and delighted she agrees that worldwide (including US) ratification of the UNCRC and its new General Comment on children’s digital rights is integral to this discussion.
- “Changing the Paradigm for Cyberbullying Intervention and Prevention: Considering Dignity, Values, and Children’s Rights,” by Tijana Milosevic and myself in the Anti-Bullying Center blog at Dublin City University
- “Children’s Rights Apply in the Digital World!“ – a blog post at the London School of Economics by Prof. Sonia Livingstone, lead drafter of the new General Comment about youth digital rights
- Writing in Facebook, Western Sydney University Prof. Amanda Third, who played the essential (CRC-honoring) role of getting input from youth in many countries into the General Comment: “Friends, it’s an exciting day for children and their rights today! Overnight, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child formally adopted a General Comment on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment. It has been a three-year effort to get to this point. Along the way, many people have contributed – in big and small ways – to making sure this guidance for states about how to protect and uphold children’s rights in the digital world is the very best it can be – not least of all the 50 experts and over 700 children from 27 countries who directly informed the drafting. Indeed, the General Comment is a testament to both the power of collaboration and the strength and commitment of the international child rights community…. Big thanks to Sonia Livingstone for her outstanding leadership of the drafting process, and to Beeban Kidron and her outstanding team at the 5Rights Foundation, Gerison Lansdown, Jutta Croll and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child for driving this effort. Thanks also to Lilly Moody (senior research officer at Western Sydney University) and the more than 100 collaborators around the world, who ran workshops with children to enable their insights to shape this document. Legends, every single one of you.”
- The website of Dr. Donna Hicks, author of Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflicts and Leading with Dignity
- BreakingRanks.net: about “rankism” and dignity as the cure (the website of author and dignity expert Dr. Robert Fuller); includes a bio of Dr. Pamela Gerloff, co-author with him of Dignity for All: How to Create a World without Rankism and founder of Compelling Vision, a consultancy “for individuals and organizations seeking to create dignitarian environments”
- The websites of the international Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network and Dignity Press
- Full text of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child