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Why Is It…?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university educator over the last 17 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that social media has become such a popular venue for bullying others? I recently heard about a girl who committed suicide as a result of being bullied on Facebook by her peers! Why do girls do this to each other?

A: Unfortunately, the tragic account that you’ve referenced is not an isolated incident. With minimal effort, one can disclose several accounts of young people who have opted to take their own lives in an effort to escape the public ridicule and humiliation resulting from the onslaught of “cyber-bullying.”

When thinking about “bullies,” most of us conjure up stereotypical images of a group of male youth wreaking havoc on the school playground while targeting a poor, innocent, weak male victim. However, bullying behavior is readily found across all races, sexes, age groups, and social contexts – from the school environment to the workplace to the Internet.

Most individuals engaging in bullying behavior do so in an effort to compensate for their own personal insecurities and low degrees of self-esteem. By aggressing against others, they gain an artificial sense of power and effectiveness that they otherwise lack. There are notable gender differences in male vs. female bullying behavior – however the underlying motivation and intent is largely the same – to humiliate, demean, and intimidate the victim for the purpose of self-promotion, empowerment, and maintenance or re-establishment of social status.

Males typically engage in physical forms of aggression when bullying others – including explicit acts of physical abuse, confiscation or destruction of personal property, and verbal assaults. While male bullies may be highly threatening, females – although typically less physical in their methods – are equally capable of imparting serious and debilitating psychological damage to their victims.

Unlike males, females typically engage in relational aggression – where the victim’s social relationships, image and reputation are targeted with an unrelenting stream of vicious rumors, gossip, lies and insults. Girls falling prey to female bullies must brace themselves against repeated blows to their physical appearance (fashion/attractiveness), body image (weight/endowment), and sexual behaviors (or lack there of). Because the nature of female aggression targets a girl’s social relationships, reputation, and status, it’s believed to be equal, if not greater, in magnitude to the harm incurred from physical assaults.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Many of us were taught this retort as a defense to childhood teasing. However, research shows that, in many cases, it may be words that leave the deepest wounds and longest lasting scars. Some argue that while a bruise may harm the “flesh,” words cut into the “heart and soul” – replaying as endless loops of rumination in the minds of the victim long after the flesh has healed.

In the context of school or neighborhood settings, attempts at physical bullying have a greater chance of being derailed by adult or peer intervention due to the obvious and noticeable nature of fights and brawls. Victims of physical bullying are more likely to be “rescued” by witnesses – as physical altercations attract the attention of crowds or onlookers.

In contrast, relational bullying is much harder to detect and “prove” because the acts and consequences are internal, subtle, and emotional vs. external, obvious and physical. Therefore, relational bullying often goes unnoticed and plays out strategically under the radar of most adults. Because relational bullying utilizes verbal and non-verbal tactics – the tactics involve whispers, dirty looks, note passing, group giggling, and now, Internet postings on personal and public cyber-sites such as blogs and Facebook.

Social media, like Facebook, are now considered to be the most contemporary and popular modes of social networking and communication – especially among youth. What used to require several, separate, individual conversations, phone calls, or letters may now be communicated with a few simple keyboard strokes. With the techno-era in full swing, one is hard pressed to find a pre-teen without a personal, portable, hand-held Internet device at their fingertips. And while this leap in broad scale communication is not without merit – it also serves as a new and dangerous breeding ground for relational aggression.

One strategically posted, negative comment, or photo will spread like wildfire, leaving any target feeling vulnerable, helpless, and utterly exposed. When combined with the fragile, sensitive, developing self-concept that characterizes adolescence, it’s no wonder that so many victims of bullying have opted for suicide as their only means of escape. Removing oneself from a school, neighborhood, or workplace is far easier than extricating oneself from the tangled world-wide-web that we weave.