A little over a year ago, I found myself conducting a focus group session with a handful of middle school students. As part of a research project looking to better understand how Internet safety programs conceptualize youth and Internet technologies, I became increasingly surprised – and at least somewhat frustrated – that cyberbullying rarely came during dozens of conversations with students, parents and school administrators. This particular focus group session was no different. Nearing the end of the session, I finally asked the students if they used the word cyberbullying when they talked to their friends. Their response, looking at me as if I was the most out-of-touch idiot they had ever spoken with, was a unanimous “Nooo!” I then asked them: If you do not use the word, who does? Various students replied with disgusted exclamations of “Parents!” or “Teachers!” and in what would be one of the defining moments of the project, a student said “It’s an old lady word” quietly under her breath. Looking beyond some problematic ageism and sexism that may be implied in her response, there is an element of truth behind what she was saying: children are using a very different interpretive frame than parents when it comes to so-called “cyber-bullying.”

Kids don’t as deeply distinguish between online and offline bullying, just as they don’t distinguish between online and offline sociality. Their lives are full of everyday drama, smoothly transitioning between the social contexts of schools, homes, and social media (see: media ecologies). As such, the response from my focus group students is particularly telling. “Cyberbullying” is an “old lady word” created by grownups trying to figure out all this “new” online activity, and it’s yet another clear case of what other authors on this blog have described as digital dualism. In the Internet safety arena, digital dualist frames do not simply draw distinctions between online and offline social life – they are used to blame existing social problems on the social technologies that make them visible in new ways. Bullying, predation and exposure to “inappropriate content” have been seen as problems long before the widespread adoption of the Internet and information technologies by kids, and yet all of these problems appear as “new” or, at best, made worse by information technologies.

In this sense, digital dualist frames are grounded in technological determinism – the presumption that technologies drive social change – drawing attention to problematic information technologies and making it impossible to recognize or confront the entrenched social/institutional problems that produce “Internet safety” issues. Problems with disrespect and harassment (“bullying”) that emerge from increasingly restrictive neoliberal constructions of childhood are framed as problems with “inescapable” technologies. Problems with predation and “grooming” that emerge from the social distancing and isolation of childhood are framed as online enemies already in your home.” And, of course, problems that emerge from the insistence that youth are naturally without sexuality (and/or are dangerously sexual) are framed as problems with the “unwanted exposure” of youth to inappropriate content through information technologies. Put differently, youth do face risks online, but they are largely the same problems previous generations faced, made newly visible by Internet technologies.

So, back again to the so-called “old lady words.” The students I spoke with were by no means dismissive of the very real risks of harassment and abuse they face every day – they had very real concerns about bullying and predation, just as adults did. But when parents and teachers distinguish between online and offline life, it not only comes off as out-of-touch, it produces bad policy for youth safety. As one director of information technology in a NY school district told me, “When you look at the audience and the kids are snickering, they’re not taking it seriously. I think it’s that power of authority that’s trying to clamp down on students’ rights…” And, let’s face it, it’s hard not to laugh when our legislators say things like “continued cyber harassment cyber bullying is a sickness and a crime, these internet bullies do not care are realize that our women and children are hurt the most from these internet predators.” 

Nathan Fisk is a danah boyd fanboy and adjunct lecturer teaching “Youth and Teens Online” in the Science & Technology Studies department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.