One of the biggest changes in our understanding of bullying has been an increased awareness of the important role witnesses play in any bullying situation. This has been partially because of cyberbullying, which makes it possible for witnesses to be invisible, to join in anonymously, to revictimize a target by forwarding bullying material – or to intervene, to offer support to the target and to bear witness to what they have seen. Just as we’re coming to realize how important witnesses to bullying are, though, we need to be careful to recognize how complex their role is.

One of the most famous images of online life is the New Yorker cartoon captioned “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The cartoon, published in 1993, was hugely influential in fixing an image in the public imagination of the Internet as a place where anonymity reigned. It did not take long for that humorous view of anonymity to take on a darker cast, as parents began to fear that Internet predators would use this invisibility to lure their children in the guise of twelve-year-old girls. It’s instructive, though, to realize just how long ago this cartoon was published, and how much the Internet has changed since then.

Someone encountering the Internet for the first time might be forgiven for assuming it was created specifically for teenagers. Indeed, the Internet could reasonably be said to have been aging backwards since its birth – the domain first of scientists and the military, then of university students in the 1990s and now children and teenagers. 

Just a short while ago, concern with online predators was so dominant that anyone trying to draw attention to the problem of cyberbullying felt like a voice in the wilderness. In the last few years, though, new research has not only provided a more realistic picture of the risks of online sexual solicitation; but has also raised awareness on the severity of cyberbullying. Unfortunately, all of the media attention that is now focused on cyberbullying runs the risk of making public perceptions on this issue as narrow and inaccurate as they were towards online predation.

Ever since Cronus the Titan tried to swallow his son Zeus, parents have feared being supplanted by their children. (It didn’t take.) But it’s only in the last few generations, as the rate of technological progress has accelerated, that children have grown up in a world significantly different from the one their parents knew, and it’s only very recently that parents have seen their surpass them while they were still in the single digits. Thanks to digital media, the world is changing so rapidly today – consider that five years ago there was no Twitter, ten years ago no Facebook and fifteen years ago no Google – that even those of us who spent our childhoods programming our parents’ VCRs can feel left behind.

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