e-kids and the digital playground
This page considers cyber-bullying in and around schools,
affecting children, teachers and parents.
It covers -
The Romantics pictured childhood as a time of innocence
and delight. That vision would be questioned by many who
conceptualise 'bullying' as the thuggery - physical assault,
threat of assault, theft, public and private denigration
- that occurs in the schoolyard or in transit to school
and that is perpetrated by minors (individually or collectively)
rather than adults.
As with workplace unpleasantness, it is clear that school
bullying has a long history and has indeed been institutionalised
in much of the world through practices such as
(one generation serves as servants and playthings for
the next, until that cohort reaches maturity and can
oppress its successors) and
(rites of passage that may involve physical pain, even
lasting injury, rather than merely fear and humiliation).
have been inflicting emotional scars on each other for
a long time. Academic histories of childhood and schooling
demonstrate that bullies have often inflicted physical
scars and on occasion directly caused the death of their
The disillusionment evident in works such as Richard Hughes'
A High Wind In Jamaica (1929), Robert Musil's
Young Törless (1906) or William Golding's
Lord of the Flies (1954) and increasing professionalisation
of education has seen a recognition that children are
not "naturally innocent" and that bullying is
a common feature of much social interaction among the
That bullying might involve the stereotypical 'class bully'
(often characterised as a slightly older or stronger boy
who compensates for inadequacies by physically assaulting
and psychologically tormenting weaker peers. It might
involve bullying by gangs, including what now is often
tagged as 'mobbing'. Much of that collective bullying
involves female teens and pre-teens, with girls often
proving to be as cruel, cunning and capricious as the
protagonist in Turandot.
Bullying of children might also involve abuse by guardians
or parents, ranging from clerics in religious institutions
with a pattern of sexual assault and beatings through
to 'soccer moms' and 'soccer dads' who verbally abuse
children in sports teams.
Bullying of children has traditionally been conceptualised
as taking place in the schoolroom, schoolyard or dormitory
and involving face to face contact. In 2008 it is clear
that conceptualisation has become inadequate, given that
children in advanced economies are 'always on' (eg rely
heavily on SMS and
voice on mobile phones)
the 'digital playground' (in the form of chat,
blogging and social
networks such as MySpace) operates 24/7
media provide opportunities for anonymous or pseudonymous
can thus be experienced directly in the home, with the
bully inhabiting the target's most personal space rather
than merely being an unwelcome feature of a playground
encountered for two hours a day during the week.
It can also be experienced in the staffroom and other
venues, with children using digital media to harass teachers
and school administrators.
prevalence and demographics
How much bullying is taking place? Where is it taking
place? Has it moved from playground taunts and fisticuffs
to '24/7 digital harassment' via SMS, email and social
Answers to those questions are uncertain. One reason is
that much bullying is not reported by the victim/parents
and if reported does not gain public attention, being
dealt with privately or shrugged off as part of the vicissitudes
of growing up. Another reason is that there are definitional
disagreements, exacerbated by poor data collection and
publishing. You cannot, for example, obtain comprehensive
Australian statistics from a national registry or from
reports published by state education departments and private
Australian case law and anecdotal reports indicate that
bullying is not restricted to children from 'bad homes',
'single parent families' or blue collar backgrounds. Recent
years for example have seen bizarre practice in elite
schools, including instances where children have gone
beyond recurrent name-calling and fisticuffs to engage
in bullying that featured scarring and rectal penetration
At Sydney's Trinity Grammar, for example, which aims to
provide "a thoroughly Christian education for its
less than seventy-five sexual assaults had been perpetrated
in the school over a four-month period - fifty on one
boy and twenty-five on another - "often during
lunch hour and in front of 'spectators" ... who
"stood by and cheered them on and laughed as the
Trinity's headmaster subsequently complained that the
school was being victimized, criticising media attention
by stating that "We have a situation where Trinity,
in effect, is being bullied", leading one critic
to respond "toughen up, princess". In the aftermath
of the bullying two 16 year-olds pleaded guilty to aggravated
indecent assault; a 15 year-old and 16 year-old pleaded
guilty to intimidation. All four were placed on good behaviour
Melbourne's Xavier College, another factory for Christian
gentlemen, suspended rather than expelled five students
after phone cam footage of schoolyard bullying was distributed
among students and staff.
The video showed a student being kicked and dragged along
the ground by his peers while others looked on. An earlier
incident involved video of a year 10 student who was pushed
upside-down into a wheelie bin amid jeers. That target
ended up in hospital.
In 2007 a 13-year-old was sentenced in Perth Children's
Court to eight months detention for involvement in bullying
of a classmate. His target had been held for six hours
in the bush, strung up by his underpants, whipped until
he bled, threatened with an axe, pushed into a makeshift
grave while dirt was shovelled on him and assaulted after
he reported the bullying. The offender admitted to urinating
in the victim's lunchbox and rubbing a sandwich in his
face. The target's five attackers were charged with deprivation
of liberty, threats to kill and assault occasioning bodily
harm. All very reminiscent of the 1770s Eton or Harrow
discussed by writers such as Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy.
One UK commentator noted that
the dormitory, no one can hear you scream. Well, they
can, obviously (although it's remarkable how often they
don't). But the metaphorical isolation is real: there
is no retreat to the safety of home; no escape from
the fact that, sooner or later, the grown-ups will vanish.
Sooner or later – usually later – your tormentor
will catch up with you.
I escaped relatively lightly: the odd, indiscriminate
attack from the house psychopath (who may well have
gone on to fill a similar role in the House of Lords).
Low-level molestations in the communal baths. Jostling,
verbal abuse, fights with older boys, fagging. And the
nocturnal attentions of another young aristocrat, whose
relentless predations of the younger boys would –
if ever exposed – presumably disqualify him from
finding work as a daytime television presenter.
... I can't help reflecting ... on how vulnerable we
all were. For 10 or 11 weeks at a time, 24 hours a day,
we were almost continuously exposed to the threat of
Childhood bullying has often be glibly conceptualised
as inadequate bullies (particularly males with learning
difficulties and self-esteem problems) picking on 'victims'
who are physically weaker or different (eg from a religious/ethnic
minority), both to gain popularity and to gain the attention
of authority figures. Reality appears to be somewhat more
Some studies, such as that by Olweus, have claimed that
many bullies have average or better than average self-esteem,
are "among the most popular and socially connected
children" and are often viewed positively by teachers
and other authority figures. The K12 bully, in that view,
is likely to become the chairman or chief executive of
tomorrow, rather than a street person.
They have been claimed as likely to -
a strong need to dominate other students and to get
their own way
little empathy toward targeted students, consistent
with findings by Milgram
and others regarding authority and abuse
impulsive and easily angered
defiant and even aggressive in dealing with adults
physically stronger (if male) than their peers
conventionally prettier and taller (if female) than
targets - partly because of recurrent bullying - are supposedly
likely to exhibit -
self-esteem and higher than average levels of anxiety,
depression and insecurity
social networks among their peers, being described by
some observbers as "withdrawn, shy, quiet or cautious"
are also likely to be members of what their peers consider
to be minorities. There is no one-size fits all demographic
for targets. Some exhibit learning and/or relationship
difficulties, with some observers pointing to problems
with reading, writing and attention (eg ADHD). Others
may be - or perceived to be - GLBT,
with some recognition in Australian discrimination
law but as Lynne Hillier & Anne Mitchell note
in 'Why homophobia needs to be named in bullying policy'
often unaided by official bystanders.
Those characteristics may alienate teachers (who characterise
the target as a 'problem child' and even signal that the
target is fair game) or alienate peers ("he gets
more attention than he deserves"). Targets may be
physically weaker and less agile or may be simply inhibited
in physical encounters, an inhibition reinforced by negative
interaction in the schoolyard and other locations such
as bus travel to/from home.
What does digital bullying by e-kids involve?
In essence, it relies on use of digital media and the
'distancing' associated with communications where the
perpetrator cannot see the target (particularly where
the perpetrator believes that she or he is unidentifiable
and thus unaccountable). It may involve an individual
perpetrator or a digital mob.
It also relies on the way that digital media have become
an integral part of the lives of many children in advanced
economies, both as a way of connection with peers and
as a way of personal expression, evident in rubrics that
for 'wired kids' "life is lived online".
Cyberbullying may thus take place 24/7, rather than being
quarantined to a few horrendous hours in transit or in
the playground. It can invade the target's personal space
- for instance a bedroom - and what the target and associates
perceive as personal space (eg a profile on MySpace and
other social network
services or a blog
on which the author allows comments). Oner contact commented
that "to be a digital bully you don't need to be
strong or have red hair ... you just need a keyboard and
a willingness to explore what it's like to cause pain".
Most children are explorers: exploration is what childhood
Bullying by kids in the 'digital playground' may thus
encompass use of -
and IM - unwelcome
messages that are threatening, demeaning or simply invasive
voice calls — silent calls or abusive messages
email — threatening
or offensive messages, often sent using a pseudonym
or somebody else's name
image and video clips from mobile phone cameras, including
clips on YouTube and on homepages that depict the target
being humiliated or attacked (eg incidents of 'happy
slapping' or 'swarming')
in chatrooms, with
threatening or offensive messages by individuals or
offensive comments and rating on online personal polling
services (aka rating or score
or denigratory comments on the perpetrator's blog and
personal profile or on the target's blog/profile.
bullies have been known to engage in joe jobs, stealing
the victim's phone or email address (not difficult when
kids share passwords and then discover that today's friend
is tomorrow's foe) and using it to harass others in the
guise of their target.
guardians running amok
Bullying of students by teachers is a fact of life, although
often dismissed as an anomalous survival of 'old style'
pedagogy and school management.
Notions of what is appropriate discipline are subjective
but it is clear that individual teachers and guardians
have stepped beyond contemporary expectations and that
some religious orders have been guilty of recurrently
turning a blind eye to systemic violence (including beatings,
deprivation of food and clothing, sexual assault and inappropriate
Litigation against that misbehaviour in Australia and
elsewhere has attracted media attention and has resulted
in damages payments that in aggregate amount to several
Such bullying has primarily taken place face to face,
with perpetrators not needing to rely on digital media.
There has been less attention to bullying of teachers
by students, primarily using the internet.
The UK Association of Teachers & Lecturers (with 160,000
members) claimed in 2007 that one in six teachers had
been a victim of cyberbullying by pupils, with 45% of
those people receiving an upsetting email, 12% receiving
photographs which made them feel threatened, embarrassed
or vulnerable and 10% had read derogatory messages about
themselves in a chat room. The net is a more effective
mechanism for bullying than traditional graffiti chalked
on the payment, spraypainted on a wall or scratched into
the enamel on a teacher's car.
Bullying by students has included offensive comments and
images in homepages and social network services, including
threats of violence to teachers and associates. That has
resulted in efforts by schools to discipline
students, a matter of controversy in the US because of
disagreements about the scope of free speech, student/parental
responsibility and restraints on activity that takes place
outside school hours/facilities.
As discussed elsewhere
on this site, derogatory comments made by students on
commercial rating service sites (aka score sites) has
attracted particular criticism by teachers and school
administrators, with threats to sue those services and
demands for greater policing by service operators.
An ATL executive said that
are one thing but what about teachers who've had images
of their heads super-imposed on to gratuitous images
or who have had pictures taken and posted of their cleavages
or underwear as they bend over, or who have had comments
questioning their fidelity to their partner?
founder of the RateMyTeacher site problematically responded
that "we read everything before we put it on our
site. For them to link our site with cyber-bullying is
ludicrous" and sniffed that "There are bad teachers.
There are teachers who do not care".
The ATL spokesperson was equally disingenuous in commenting
"could you imagine the outcry if we started a website
which allowed teachers to say whatever we liked about
Responses to cyberbullying by students have essentially
taken four forms -
responsibility to parents/guardians
by parents or by victims
Emphasis on action by schools reflects expectations that
the responsibility of individual teachers, administrators
and institutions extends beyond the classroom and playground.
It has been accompanied by rhetoric such as the UK Schools
Minister's statement that
child should suffer the misery of bullying, online or
offline, and we will support schools in tackling it
in cyberspace with the same vigilance as in the playground
support is likely to be less resounding than the statement.
UK cyberbullying guidelines require schools to monitor
"all e-communications on the school site or as part
of school activities off-site", update anti-bullying
policies and teach "e-etiquette".
Critics have noted that although schools have some scope
for restricting harassment on school premises (eg by monitoring
signs of pupil unhappiness, prohibiting use of mobile
phones and IM, blocking school access to social
software and blog
sites) they should not be expected to act as replacement
parents in dealing with communication outside school hours.
Consultation with parents may be effective but institutions
cannot directly identify and address what takes place
in a student's home, in a cybercafe
or another venue. In practice it is easier for schools
to discipline (even expel) their own pupils; much harder
to deal with bullies in another institution or in the
A second response is to emphasise the responsibility of
parents and guardians.
Some jurisdictions have foreshadowed that they will move
beyond exhortation to legislation, with proposals in the
UK for example to impose fines of up to £1,000 on
parents of persistent school bullies who fail to tackle
that behaviour and orders for compulsory parenting classes.
Governments and school authorities have also advocated
self-help, including suggestions that victims -
email addresses and IM names
not reply to SMS, email and other messages
not go online and thus do not encounter digital nastiness.
of such advice have noted that for many victims it is
a practical and effective solution, akin to advice to
adults "don't feed the troll".
They have, however, commented that adoption of the advice
requires discipline and savvy on the part of the victim
and that individual's associates (eg there is little point
changing a number if it is disclosed to an erstwhile friend
who then shares it with the mob). It also denies the child
access that is enjoyed by his/her peers and has been criticised
as equivalent to saying that victims should imprison themselves
inside rather than venturing outdoors.
Gill's No Fear: Growing up in a Risk-averse Society
(London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation 2007) argues against
'bubble-wrapping' children, claiming that
level of playground bullying is being exaggerated and
children must learn to cope with name-calling and teasing
to help them develop resilience
Duncan more provocatively argued that concern about childhood
bullying has aspects of a moral
panic, claiming that -
unintended consequence ... was to draw attention away
from the structural flaws in our society while chasing
the new folk-devils: the bullies.
It seems that the pursuit of individual scapegoats in
the form of school bullies was a useful (albeit temporary)
diversion from more pressing but politically obnoxious
tasks that would improve quality of life for children
generally. Rather than tackle the economic and material
deprivations, dysfunctioning family systems and culturally
tolerated male violence that blights young lives, war
was declared against children with a propensity to be
nastier to their peers than 'normal'. This is not to
dispute the need for research and action on oppressive
peer behaviour in schools but to suggest reasons for
its sudden floresence at that time.
Some observers have called for a muscular response, with
kids, parents or schools taking perpetators to court.
The rationales for litigation are variously to -
the victim's (or family's) hurt and sense of powerlessness
the perpetrator and those, such as parents, who might
be held responsible for the bully's action
public examples that alert parents, encourage action
by other victims, clarify uncertainties about the responsibility
of schools and education agencies
legal frameworks regarding bullying are explored here,
with particular cases being discussed here.
They include instances, such as Cox v State of New
South Wales  NSWSC 471, where courts have awarded
substantial damages to targets and their families.
Proponents have commented that a basis for litigation
may not be as difficult as is often assumed. Many bullies
are not sufficiently savvy to use throwaway phones, for
example, and the number from which an SMS message was
sent can usually be identified. Some have noted that receiving
a letter from a solicitor or a query from police will
often bring parents (and schools) into line, encouraging
them to take complaints seriously and more closely supervise
the activity of bullies.
If litigation proceeds a court decision in favour of a
target could be cathartic: some young adults have accordingly
taken action against schools or employers several years
after being bullied, seeking apology and acknowledgement
that the institution was derelict in protecting them.
Other targets and families have sought damages as compensation
for pain and for costs associated with medical treatment,
changing numbers, changing schools and so forth.
Critics have noted that there are costs to any legal action
and that victory, or sufficient victory, is uncertain.
The cost of legal representation and expert advice may
be considerable. A resolution may not be quick, an issue
if people are seeking to get on with their lives, and
litigation (particularly if defended) is stressful.
Critics have also noted that most litigation appears to
be directed at custodians, rather than perpetrators -
both because schools often have deeper pockets and because
courts are reluctant to punish minors.
Action against schools reflects recognition that institutions
owe pupils a duty of care, with a history of civil action
against schools that breached that duty and thereby were
responsible when bullying resulted in a physical injury.
Liability arises when harm could have been prevented by
the teacher or institution taking all reasonable steps.
In practice it thus does not encompass all bullying,
online or otherwise, as some bullying is not discernable
or the institution/individual has satisfied expectations
about what is reasonable in carrying out responsibilities.
next page (bullying
in the digital workplace)