The Poor Visibility of Society in the Latest Commissioned Report into Cyberbullying

A new report has been released that looks into the research on cyberbullying – the supposed causes and effects thereof. Although I haven’t been able to find much information on the report’s author Helen Gleeson, the bibliography reveals that the report is a product of the discipline of psychology. One of the main points to emerge from the report is predictable. The cyberbullying offenders are themselves likely to have been subject to harsh discipline, neglect or violence. This takes me back to my days as an undergraduate in sociology attending Ciaran McCullagh’s lectures on deviance. In a somewhat similar manner technology was being blamed by the media for encouraging acts of violence. The media in their lazy simplicity – not bothering to do any social science research themselves – were making out that violent imagery in movies encouraged acts of violence in society: a rationale of monkey see monkey do. Investigations into those claims failed to find any such link, save for the possibility that persons who were already exposed to real violence in their lives might possibly find inspiration from their own exposure to media violence. The problem obviously here appears to be the exposure to real violence in the first place. Already predisposed to violence the inspiration, if not coming from media violence, could quite possibly come from anywhere: consider the Beatles’ song Helter Skelter  and the Manson family. Anyway, my point is that this information about pre-exposure to violence begetting more violence, or in this case the cruelty of cyberbulling, is old: note my undergraduate years were in the latter half of the nineties while some of the data my lecturer was using was from the eighties.

An uncritical media like a good story and are always inclined to jump on the bandwagon of novelty. Not that cyberbullying shouldn’t be addressed but much of the media depiction of cyberbullying has been somewhat asocial, as though the internet and the bullies alone are entirely responsible. However, both exist in and are influenced by society. This is why I am disappointed by the narrowness of the report – a narrowness that appears to be largely inherent in the discipline of psychology, which tends to concentrate on individuals and their immediate relations. But surely there are broader social structures that are also worth considering:

  • What about the role of inequality
  • The construction of masculinity with class-based variations with regard to the social acceptability of aggressiveness
  • The failures to embed gender studies and other forms of reflexivity in our educational institutions
  • The low status of the emotions, ethics and morality within mass education, which are virtually invisible next to the positivist didacticism of the classroom and lecture halls, along with the reduction of all motivation to exam and course results
  • The lack of local community, civil society, and state-based structures that promote practices of empathy
  • The amoral tone of public debate with its alienating economism, reducing important social and deeply ethical issues such as climate change, health care, social welfare, education, etc. to narrow excursions into asocial econometrics, economic models and cost accounting. Possibly this underdeveloped reference to our moral connections to each other filters down through media communication channels, peers and parental relationships to the offenders
  • The top-down approach of our entire society, which is visible in the classroom, in our de-unionised workforce and in the daily subjugation of the workplace, in our governance systems marked by a very weak local government, in our depoliticised civil society where many of our NGOs operate as service providers rather than advocates for social change. None of which are likely to inspire much social empowerment and the means to stand up for each other in the communities where cyberbullying takes place. (Although it may be virtual, the relationships behind cyberbullying are found in the real world)

The study also looks into the role of cyberbullying on suicide, again finding the influence of interpersonal social relationships outside the virtual world. Victims of cyberbullying don’t just commit suicide solely on the basis of cyberbullying alone, as the report finds that positive peer and family relationships can act as a buffer against the emotional effects of the bullying. Again the focus is limited to the immediate relationships of the individuals. However, sociology has a long tradition in examining the effects of society and community in suicide. One of its canonical sociologists Emile Durkheim published his seminal book Suicide: A Study in Sociology as far back as 1897. Isn’t it about time for these commissioned reports to opt for the broader perspective?


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