Cyberbullying: One Feminist’s Perspective

By Professor Jane Bailey

Seems to me it’s getting hard to get through a day without bumping up against cyberbullying.   Websites (including our own!), news stories, legislative debates, courtrooms, chatrooms, are all loaded with explorations of the causes, effects and potential solutions to this social phenomenon.  Legal responses in Canada have included everything from amending the Education Act in Ontario to specifically address cyberbullying to court proceedings aimed at uncovering the identities of anonymous cyberbullies to proposals to specifically criminalize cyberbullying.  Of course, comprehensive responses don’t begin or end with law – education is understood to be critical.  But it is easy to fall short on that score as well.  Many different websites offer practical preventative tips advising us not to give out personal information and encouraging us to unplug every now and then.  While this may be good advice for me, it doesn’t easily mesh with young people’s full integration of “online technologies into their social lives” (as reported by MediaSmarts in their 2012 report Young Canadians in a Wired World III (p. 15)).   And, in any event, these kinds of tips always leave me wondering what else we need to be educating ourselves about.

For example, witnesses before the Senate Committee that investigated cyberbullying in 2011-2012 testified that “bullying is a phenomenon grounded in discrimination and ignorance and that people who belong to minority groups or are perceived as different are generally more vulnerable” (pp. 28-29), leaving youth in Aboriginal and LGBTQ communities particularly exposed (pp. 43-44).  When it came to gender, witnesses were not necessarily in agreement – some said girls are more likely to both cyberbully and to be cyberbullied than boys, while others said there was little-to-no difference (p. 36).  What interests me even more than the identity of who initiates and who targets, are the bases for targeting.  It seems to me that we need to understand the extent to which discriminatory tropes lay at the foundation of what is too often lumped together with more individualized attacks under the banner of cyberbullying.  If discrimination is at play, our responses might be quite different than if it isn’t.  If, for example, girls are targeting other girls on the basis that they live up to — or don’t live up to — mainstream (racialized, heterosexist) stereotypes of femininity/beauty/chastity, then getting to the heart of the matter seems to require moving beyond education and instead actively questioning and intervening in the widespread commercial propagation of these stereotypes.  If we targeted this kind of propaganda, we might have a chance of getting at what I think is a key source of the constraining tropes on which we draw in order to (either consciously or unconsciously) discipline one another.

But what would active questioning and intervention on commercial propagation of these tropes look like?  While I don’t have a full picture of this in my head (yet), I was really interested in some of the suggestions included in a draft report on the sexualisation of girls presented to the EU Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee.  Although the Committee ultimately rejected the draft report  (reportedly because of concerns that it was “telling parents how to raise their children”), suggestions about better regulating hypersexualized advertising and encouraging corporate social responsibility on these issues seemed to me to be moving in the right direction.   Likewise, the recommendation in the APA Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls to “work with Congress and relevant federal agencies and industry to reduce the use of sexualized images of girls in all forms of media and products” (p. 43) also seemed promising.  But these kinds of initiatives are only a start – we’ve also got to come to grips with the ways that racist, homophobic and other oppressive mainstream narratives inform many of the attacks that can too easily be buried within a generic term like cyberbullying.