An intersectional feminist review of the literature on gendered cyberbullying: Digital girls.
Keywords: cyberbullying; cyberviolence; gender; aggression; feminism; girls' digital culture; intersectionality
A string of widely reported cases involving young white, middle-class female victims of cyberbullying in several countries including Canada and the United States has catapulted this phenomenon into the news. In Canada, the high-profile suicides of Amanda Todd (2012) and Rehtaeh Parsons (2013) resulted in a national anti-cyberbullying campaign. (1) The campaign against cyberbullying has taken shape in federal and provincial government projects such as "Send This Instead" and Status of Women Canada, 2013. It has also resulted in heavily debated changes to law and federal policy, such as Bill C-13, passed in 2014 (Browne). (2) Many fields, including education, psychology, and criminology, have seen a recent surge of scholarship on cyberbullying since the highly publicized suicides of Megan Meier (2006) and Rebecca Sedgwick (2013) in the United States (Chisholm 78) and of Todd and Parsons in Canada.
Bullying behaviour is recognized as being a subset of aggression. Dan Olweus's seminal definition of bullying involves "(i) repeated acts, of (ii) intentional aggression, (iii) in a relationship where there is a power imbalance that makes it challenging for the young person being bullied to defend himself or herself" (Bailey, "Canadian" 5). Because this has been the predominant definition in scholarship on bullying since the early 1970s, it is used by many scholars who are beginning to contend with cyberbullying. In doing so, they assume that the definition of and approach to traditional bullying can form the starting point for interrogating bullying that happens in online spaces. But this equation is beginning to be challenged. While there is still no universal definition for cyberbullying (Arntfield), it is understood as taking place along a continuum of bullying behaviour. June Chisholm notes that a common definition of cyberbullying in the literature is "the intentional and repeated harm inficted through the use of computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices" (78). This definition is a starting point for many scholars such as Robin Kowalski and Peter K. Smith.
Enormous attention is being devoted to cyberbullying in popular and scholarly discourse, and the majority of this coverage centres on girls as victims. It is therefore becoming increasingly important to apply critical lenses to the framing of girls and girlhood in cyberbullying narratives, academic and otherwise. In this article I draw on both a review of the extant literature on cyberbullying and my own fieldwork completed as part of a study entitled "Cyber and Sexual Violence: Helping Communities Respond: Preventing and Eliminating Cyberviolence against Girls and Women" (2014-2016) to argue that feminists have an opportunity to positively shape the emerging field of gendered cyberbullying research by incorporating the voices of girls themselves and examining the ways in which identity factors contribute to experiences of cyberbullying. Funded by Status of Women Canada, "Cyber and Sexual Violence" was a call for proposals that resulted in several multi-year, multimodal studies across Canada. The project in which I participated involves a collaboration between a Montreal-based library and a university media research lab. The needs assessment included consultations with 690 people (N=690), of which more than half (N=370) are under the age of 25. The assessment was conducted by a research team primarily from Concordia University led by Principal Investigator Dr. Mia Consalvo and included, among other methods, open-ended interviews, focus groups, and community discussions. The needs assessment had several goals, namely: identifying spaces where cyberviolence is manifesting, learning about the relationship between offline and online violence in the lives of girls and women, and working with stakeholders to determine best practices for preventing gendered cyberviolence. At the heart of the assessment was determining how it affects girls and young women on Montreal's West Island. As a research partner--and as part of my doctoral fieldwork--I am responsible for conducting arts-based video workshops at a community-based organization and a high school.
Delineating a clear, conversational path between the existing work on cyberbullying and emerging work on girls' digital cultures allows us to examine cyberbullying more ethnographically, that is, in a way that attends to everyday lives and media practices, and through a gendered and intersectional lens. The ongoing work of scholars who push back against pathologizing and individualizing paradigms of women's and girls' aggression (e.g., Garcia-Gomez; Gelsthorpe and Worrall; Kilty and Frigon; Ringrose and Renold) suggests that future study of gendered cyberbullying could be productively located within emerging critical girlhood studies (Banet-Weiser). A growing number of researchers of girls' digital culture are challenging the problematic and simplistic raced, classed, and gendered assumptions underpinning explanations of girls' digital practices and the notion that girls' relational bullying is exceptional (Garcia-Gomez 245). Although girls use social media in greater numbers than boys, a great deal of empirical evidence suggests that boys are more often than not the perpetrators of cyberbullying (see Jaffer and Brazeau). The fact that girls are less often the perpetrators but receive significantly more coverage points to the stakes for future research at the intersection of gender and cyberbullying.
Through an intersectional feminist lens, I demonstrate that much education and psychology literature, as well as mainstream news media coverage on girls, aggression, and cyberbullying (e.g., Besag) from 2000 to the present, could benefit from additional work in two major areas: listening to girls and intersectionality. Too often cyberbullying literature excludes girls' voices, which have much to teach us about contemporary constructions of girlhood. This literature also lacks intersectional analyses of girls' experiences of the phenomenon, which remain under-utilized in studies of digital girl culture even though they offer a way to attend to the impact of cyberbullying as it intersects with multiple axes of identity such as sexuality, race, and ability. In this article, I put the existing research on cyberbullying into conversation with research on girls' digital cultures. The important work being done on girls' digital culture demonstrates that including girls as respected agents in the research process will get us closer to nuanced and contextualized understandings of gendered cyberviolence. I argue that it is crucial we reframe the very terms of the debate about cyberbullying and that gendered cyberbullying should be anchored within analyses of gender, youth, and the contradictions surrounding femininity. This productive reframing of the issue of gendered cyberviolence should also contribute to the ongoing effort to tackle the preoccupations with girl-on-girl violence that have emerged since the 1990s (Jiwani, "Erasing"; Ringrose, "'Every'"; Ringrose, "'Just'").
Girlhood, Digital Culture, and Cyberbullying
In 1978, when Angela McRobbie demonstrated that Jackie (a UK teen magazine) was an object worthy of scholarly inquiry, she established girl culture as a site in need of exploration ("Jackie"). Before then, studies on youth culture as subculture (Hebdige) focused exclusively on the perceptions of working-class boys and men. McRobbie's and Jenny Garber's groundbreaking essay "Girls and Subcultures" (1976) established the spaces of working-class girls' culture as an important site of inquiry. Following McRobbie's theory of girls' bedroom culture (Feminisim), many scholars approached the domestic space of girls' bedrooms as a unique and important site of gossip, friendship, and entertainment. More recently, bedroom culture has been seen to extend to digital spaces of sociality such as Facebook (Harris; Livingstone; Mitchell and Reid-Walsh). A significant number of contemporary girlhood scholars have widened these inquiries to look at how girls make sense of media and information communication technologies (ICTs) in their daily lives (Banet-Weiser; Dobson). As Kelly Boudreau notes, three scholarly themes emerged around girls' digital culture: the Internet as a space for testing identity and self-expression (Gross; Turkle); the Internet as an alternative space for girls to form social circles (boyd; Simmons); and technology, broadly, as a tool of empowerment (Mitchell and Reid-Walsh; Shade). A growing body of scholarship now addresses the nuanced ways in which girls and young women create and produce media (Kearney; Mazzarella). For example, in their examinations of graffiti communities and girls' vlogging practices on YouTube, Ben Light, Marie Griffiths, and Sian Lincoln, as well as Sarah Banet-Weiser, suggest that the popular video-sharing sites operate for some as a space in which they can engage with like-minded individuals to collaborate in creating forms of vernacular culture.
With the growing emphasis on girls' supposed "meanness" often being reproduced in psychology literature and research on cyberbullying, it may be instructive to turn to the genealogy of historical moral panics around girlhood. When approaching the popular and scholarly discourse on cyberbullying and aggression, it is important not to overemphasize the objects and tools: although they have changed, they belong to a history of what Catherine Driscoll calls "girls today" (13). "Girls today" articulates a history of "modern girlhood entwined with anxieties about cultural norms and cultural change" (13) that reflects a set of recurring tensions in popular and scholarly discourses around the category of girl and the construction of girlhood. As Driscoll notes, girl culture "is as contained and productive, as predictable and contingent, as the category of 'girl' itself" (28). A dominant thread in the mainstream news media around young people's digital culture is that there is something wrong with "kids today." Kids are accused of not being able to communicate face-to-face, preferring instead to hide behind a screen. The empirical evidence, from studies conducted with girls on digital culture, suggests that many girls move fluidly between online and offline platforms (Boudreau). Girls often communicate with their friends on websites while in the same room with them, or while texting friends across the globe (Boudreau). Some argue that rather than lacking social skills, the digital youth of today may be "redefining the very nature of sociality" (Dixon 3). The merits of young people's digital practices aside, it is clear that girls' social communication, temporally and spatially, extends far beyond the end of the school day, with daily conversations often continuing in digital spaces (Boudreau 68).
Digital space is now more commonly recognized as a public sphere (Habermas et al.), a site for leisure, commerce, and sociality, as well as political and civic participation (Saco). The exclusion of girls from online spaces perpetuates the marginalization and silencing of girls in public space. Further, addressing cyberbullying as it is experienced and lived in situated contexts by girls may move us closer to facilitating the creation of safer space(s) for girls' voices and politics, and for their increased participation as full and ideally equal digital citizens (Bailey and Steeves; Milford). When we parse these dominant discourses around girls and cyberbullying, however, we must be careful, for they can sometimes lead to further restricting girls' participation in these important social spaces. For example, risk discourses often portray the Internet as a space full of predators (Beck; Todd). Similarly, representations of digital technologies often reiterate the notion that they are corrupting children (Giroux and Pollock; Todd). Both points of view construct the Internet as a dangerous place for vulnerable (read: victimized) girls (Livingstone; Livingstone and Haddon; Shade).
When educators and policymakers--inadvertently, and likely with good intentions--set the stakes of engaging in digital culture too high, some of the girls I interviewed told me that it can scare them offline. Polarizing conceptions of risk versus empowerment can be devoid of nuance or complexity and mirror familiar moral panic frameworks that construct public space as a dangerous place for girls and young women. New narratives that discourage young women's participation in and use of digital space build on older discourses that once circulated around girls and the city (Nord 117).
Over the past few years, mainstream news media representations of adolescent girls' use of technology have fallen into two distinct categories: 1) girls are in constant danger from online predators; and 2) girls are dangerous "loose cannons" when it comes to technology. For example, since 2014 alone The Globe and Mail, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The New York Times have all run multiple stories warning of the dangers of sexting (3) and apps used by young people that often trade on girls as variously at risk or risky. This binary between dangerous and in danger is, of course, not new; it has been mobilized in criminal justice discourses and discourses around girls' (and women's) violence since at least the nineteenth century (Gelsthorpe and Worrall; Hudson; Kilty and Frigon). Rather than portraying girls as helpless victims, it is more instructive to follow the lead of scholars of girls' digital culture such as Amy Shields Dobson, Antonio Garcia-Gomez, and Sarah Banet-Weiser, who value girls' voices and approach them as "users and producers of innovative online content" (Shade 240). As we know, digital spaces offer positive possibilities for girls, such as engaging in educational activities (Steeves, "Young"), play (Grimes), self-expression (Doster), and activism. A significant body of literature within digital girl culture studies challenges the negative connotations and moral panic that circulate within dominant mass media narratives of young people and digital technologies. Scholars working in this area are recuperating social networking sites rather than ridiculing them as spaces in which girls are "doing vain things online" (Abidin 1) such as posting selfies.
As Dobson notes, while several scholars are now taking girls' content production seriously, much more research is needed in order to offer greater nuance to the binary discourses around girls' digital culture and ICT use. As scholars have demonstrated (see Shade), it is important to move beyond the risk/empowerment binary in the literature to understand how girls negotiate gender and aggression through experiences both on- and offline. Instead of dismissing ICTs, it is crucial to explore how girls use Social Networking Sites (SNS) and game spaces. The stakes for digital girls reflect and refract the ones that previous generations faced regarding, for instance, young women's use of telephones (Marvin; Shade) and, before that, bicycles (Bailey et al.), not to mention books, which were thought by many in eighteenth-century Europe to corrupt girls and women (Bilston). These discourses were, and are, rooted in fears around female sexuality, shifting courtship rituals, and female autonomy. In her book Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy and Consent, Amy Hasinoff suggests that we recognize girls as content producers, a move that effectively decouples consensual "sexting" from discourses of moral panic.
Many girls are content producers; in fact, girls make up the largest demographic of people creating online media content (Hasinoff, "Sexting"). Like Hasinoff, Dobson argues that we should take girls' production of political and creative media seriously. She focuses on practices that continue to be framed as problematic and under-theorized in studies of girls' digital culture, particularly the "selfie," sexualized profiles on SNS, and sexting. Research like hers offers up valuable models through which to explore the opportunities (as well as risks) in girls' use of and participation in SNS, game spaces, and the vlog/blogosphere. It is also important to acknowledge that the activities of girls and young women (including sexting) are taking place in largely corporatized spaces (Bailey and Steeves) that are highly gendered, classed, and racialized and, as such, reflect offline power imbalances (Nakamura). Approaching gendered and "sexualized online bullying" through a lens of equality rather than criminalization that pathologizes girls' behaviour clears a space for attending to the structural inequalities that inform gendered cyberbullying (Bailey, "'Sexualized'" 709).
One of the major binary oppositions that plays out in the current debate over cyberbullying is the notion that when they are online, young people, and particularly girls, are either passive and vulnerable or actively engaged in risky behaviour (Asquith et al.). Besides scholars and public figures, girls and young women often insist on accounting for online space as "real" space. (4) One sixteen-year-old girl told me, "I think that the Internet is only just another aspect of the real world, websites are similar to real places--like something written anonymously in a bathroom stall in school--we have to look at it as part of the real world [even though] you can be anonymous." There are far-reaching benefits to listening to the nuanced ways in which girls describe their negotiation of "girl" through on- and offline encounters with aggression, and many teens report suspecting that their peers say certain things in Internet spaces that they may not say in "real space" (Subrahmanyam et al.). By incorporating girls' voices in research and policy discussions we begin to correct a harmful trend of patronizing and silencing girls and young women.
Media production offers an excellent instance of girls negotiating complex identities in digital culture. The YouTube vlogger Franchesca Ramsey, for example, produces large volumes of video addressing popular culture from an anti-racist and social justice perspective, which she posts on her channel Chescaleigh. Social media has taken over where malls and coffee shops left off as the dominant site of teenage social interaction for many young people in the global North and increasingly in the global South. We would do well to place girls' negotiations of online social spaces within the broader context of girls' culture studes. In bringing cyberbullying literature into dialogue with girls' digital culture studies, we can move beyond myths and moral panic discourses, which continue to structure not only the terms of debate around girls' use of new media and recurring themes in academic "risk" literature (e.g., Baldry et al.) but also news media discourse around youth and digital technologies (boyd; Shade; Simmons). This turn toward girl-centred theories of cyberbullying enables an understanding of girls as agents helping to construct meanings around contemporary girlhood (Driscoll; Hasinoff, Sexting).
Young people's online communication often flows seamlessly into their offline lives (Ogersby). In a 2010 Pew survey, 93 percent of the 800 adolescents surveyed reported using ICTs in their daily interactions (Lenhart et al., "Social"). A more recent national survey of Canadian secondary students found that by grade four, students often sleep with their phone under their pillow so as not to miss text messages (Steeves, "Swimming"). Communication and information sharing via ICTs is thought to be particularly popular among young people because it offers a sense of privacy (Chun and Friedland; Gross), thereby providing a venue separate from adults that allows for greater sharing and personal expression than face-to-face interaction (Chisholm 77; Gross). This may also suggest why girls engage in (or at least self-report) greater usage regarding SNS and applications than boys (Chisholm). Adolescence is recognized as a time when girls begin to "struggle with [a] loss of voice, gender socialization and relational authenticity" (McClung 141), which we now understand is rooted in patriarchal socialization rather than any essential feminine quality (Gilligan; Ringrose, "'Just'"). Moreover, we can trace a significant development in literature on digital girls' culture from 2000 to the present: a growing number of scholars such as Claudia Mitchell and Amy Shields Dobson are invested in girls' voices and accounts of their lived experiences. In bringing cyberbullying literature into conversation with this significant body of work, it becomes clear that cyberbullying studies need more grounding in feminist and participatory approaches that give voice to young people. How experiences of cyberbullying intersect with racialization and sexuality, or social constructions of girlhood and girls' aggression, is still largely absent from studies of both girls' digital culture and cyberbullying. With the exception of a handful of scholars (Bailey et al.; Ringrose, "'Just'"; Ringrose and Renold), intersectional qualitative and/or participatory study is missing from the extant cyberbullying literature.
Youth digital culture has often been studied in isolation as "virtual reality" or as a subculture (Bennett; Hall and Jefferson), but recent scholarship is broadening the approaches we can use to study youth digital cultures. We are beginning to understand that the line between the offline and online experiences of young people is either blurred or disappearing entirely in our increasingly digitized world (Shariff 58). This lack of distinction between online and offline life was referenced by many young people to whom I spoke during my field research. For example, girls explained to us that they do not think of conversations and activities in which they engage as occurring either offline or online. This finding further suggests that it may be productive to develop the growing body of work that resists online/offline epistemologies as a significant site of inquiry with our young participants. For example, Sarah Banet-Weiser's work on girls' self-representation on YouTube, Mary Celeste Kearney's research on girls' evolving media cultures, Amy Shields Dobson's recovery of girls' content creation, and Sharon Mazzarella's attention to girls' use of online platforms all model methodologies that enable better understandings of the production contexts of girls' everyday situated media, as well as the multiple meanings these texts produce.
The current literature on cyberbullying reflects varied and contested definitions of cyberbullying. This clears a space for feminist researchers to positively influence the future of cyberbullying studies and challenge patriarchal assumptions. The lack of clear definition around cyberbullying presents us with an opportunity to resist the normative assumptions underpinning traditional bullying discourses. Gendered cyberbullying is an emerging area of inquiry, and feminists can and should establish a positive direction for the field that breaks from uncritical repetition of concepts such as girls' relational aggression without contextualizing findings within heteronormative expectations. The 2007 Pew report "Cyberbullying and Online Teens" found that approximately one third of the 935 teenagers aged 12 to 17 surveyed reported being targets of harassing or upsetting behaviour online (Lenhart). Girls reported more instances of targeting than boys, with girls aged 15 to 17 accounting for the most overall. The more active a participant is online, especially via SNS, the more likely it is that he or she will be a target of cyberbullying (Lenhart et al., "Social"). This is worth examining further because it is overwhelmingly in SNS and gaming sites that privileged and marginalized teens in the global North now go to interact (see boyd).
Studies on cyberbullying quickly become obsolete as technology changes amid "the ever evolving fluidity of public/private domains... and cultural differences in communication styles" (Chisholm 81). The rapid evolution of cyberbullying studies across disciplines such as psychology, communication, human-computer interaction, and education also speaks to the significant need for qualitative research to fill the gaps that surveys and self-reporting cannot provide. Unfortunately, considerations of gender in cyberbullying studies are often restricted to notes or observations, if mentioned at all. Gender is rarely addressed as a structuring principle of violence. (5) When it is, conclusions such as "girls engage in cyberbullying more than boys" are not investigated or properly contextualized. (6) Furthermore, harmful gendered stereotypes are often reproduced in the discourse, such as in one study that blames cyber-victimization on "risky behaviours" like alcohol use (Bennett et al.). (7) These studies often do not even mention the logic of hetero-patriarchy that informs the socialization of girls. Instead, dominant discourses that examine girls' bullying experiences, such as those prominent in developmental psychology, tend to "essentialize, universalize and pathologize girlhood, emptying out the social, discursive, and structural dynamics of power through which girls come to exist as subjects" (Ringrose, "'Every'" 38). As Jessica Ringrose and others have argued, psycho-educational bullying discourses (e.g., Olweus, Bullying) tend to ignore traditional gender expectations of femininity such as passivity and niceness (Ringrose, "'Every'"). (8) Moreover, issues of race, ethnicity, and class are too often treated as after thoughts rather than incorporated into examinations of cyberbullying.
Films such as Cyberbully (2011), Men, Women and Children (2014), and Unfriended (2014), as well as academic articles (see Aboujaoude et al.) address the importance of viewing cyberbullying as a social phenomenon, that is, as something experienced within a broad digital culture rather than by a few "deviant" individuals. This approach--an important departure from the model of developmental psychology--is a positive step toward studies rooted in a feminist intersectional framework. It also allows for the inclusion of girls' voices that may help avoid the pitfalls of personal victim narratives, as the ethical complexities of soliciting such narratives--which must become part of the approach to research on cyberbullying--are compounded in research with young people, particularly marginalized girls (Kirk et al.).
The relationship between girls and relational bullying (9) is well documented (Crick and Nelson; Simmons). When girls act aggressively, it has been shown that they often do so indirectly (Simmons). Ringrose rightly critiques the trend in the psychological and education literature on bullying (Bjorkqvist; Crick and Grotpeter; Jackson et al.) to pathologize girls' bullying behaviours and essentialize relational aggression as a feminine mode of bullying ("'Just'"). Much of the literature on girls and aggression in psychology and education tends to pathologize covert forms of aggression in girls, measuring them against the supposedly natural forms demonstrated by boys (Ringrose, "'Just'"). The brutal murder, in 1997, of fourteen-year-old Reena Virk in Victoria, British Columbia, ushered in a media preoccupation with girls' violence. This was accompanied by an increase in critical scholarly analyses (M. Brown), especially in Canada. These analyses addressed the impact of factors such as class, race, ethnicity, and power relations on behaviour, as well as broader systems of inequality through which girls form and negotiate identities (Ringrose, "'Every'"). Rather than pathologize girls' violence (L. Brown; Simmons) through individualizing what in reality are social processes (Dobson; Kearney), scholars in the digital realm must explore cyberbullying as a social phenomenon. This would help pave the move away from programming built around punishing individual "bad apple" bullies as is the case now in many anti-bullying programs. (10) Many of these programs institute blanket zero-tolerance policies that do not address the root causes of bullying behaviour. Not surprisingly, many of them prove to be ineffective (Rivers and Duncan).
There are significant differences and commonalities that emerge from these studies. Since 2013, researchers seem to have arrived at a consensus that targets of cyberbullying are disproportionately adolescent girls and young women (Slonje et al. 28; Tokunaga). A recent Canadian senate standing committee report on cyberbullying (Jaffer and Brazeau) found that belonging to or being aligned with a marginalized identity group such as LGBTQIA also increases the risk of being a target (Bailey and Steeves; Kowalski et al.; Raskauskas and Stoltz). Furthermore, studies are beginning to show that contrary to the belief that cyberbullying only impacts middle-class and affluent young people, poor and working-class youth may experience increased instances of online bullying (Jaffer and Brazeau). These findings are paving the way for girlhood scholars to move beyond mass media stereotypes and reductionist, developmental discourses. Studying cyberbullying through an intersectional lens allows us to understand this phenomenon by exploring what Lyn Mikel Brown calls "new versions of girlhood connected to social and cultural context, history, and the material condition of girls' lives" (14). How do girls marked by class, race, and sexual orientation navigate misogyny, femininity, and "doing girl" in digital culture?
"Teen Drama" or Cyber Misogyny? Missing Voices in Cyberbullying Literature and Policy
A central theme that emerges in qualitative studies of cyberbullying is the communication breakdown between adults and youth when attempting to develop strategies to combat cyberbullying. The communication barrier between youth and adults is caused in part by the generation gap and is exacerbated by a notable absence of girls' voices in scholarly (Bailey and Steeves) and policy discourses (e.g., Bill C-13) (11) on cyberbullying. For example, young people told me that a common solution offered by adults to combat cyberbullying is to "unplug" or shut down their online accounts. Generational differences and insufficient immersion in youth culture often blinds adult researchers and front-line workers to the fact that "unplugging" is not an option for youth whose social lives blur the boundary between on-and offline (Wilson and Atkinson). The communication breakdown between adults and youth (Weber and Dixon) is often due to exceptionalism based on the concept of what sociologist Marc Prensky termed the "digital native" in 2001. (12) This notion informs not only mass media discourse around cyberbullying but also much of the academic literature on the role of digital culture in young people's lives (Weber and Dixon). The notion of the "digital native" borrows from earlier depictions of the "nerdy whiz kid" who is thought to have an innate facility for digital tools. (13) Unhelpful stereotypes that construct youth as innately skilled with technology reinforce the notion that ICTs are "toys for boys" and devalue the potential of digital literacy curricula.
Digital native exceptionalism fuels the binary opposition that constructs girls and young women as being either in danger or precocious dangerous agents. In other words, ICTs are portrayed as vehicles that offer youth spaces where adults cannot follow or which they cannot understand (Shade; Todd) or as spaces where youth have the power to manipulate and control others (Simmons). Just like the representation of girls as either "at-risk" or "risky," this discourse follows technological determinist frameworks (Marx) that over-emphasize the objects of digital culture, thus fuelling the knowledge gap between the myths and realities of girls' digital citizenship. (14) This knowledge gap is further compounded by the social norms and complexities that attend research on girls (Driscoll). With the exception of a handful of scholars (Bailey et al.; boyd; Ringrose, "'Just'"; Ringrose and Renold), many studies focus on how to "manage" young people rather than consider how young people utilize these technologies, what design features they identify as problematic, and how they define the terms of the issues that directly impact girls and young women in everyday life. Including the voices of girls and young women in qualitative research on cyberbullying is a recent and important methodological shift in studies of digital youth culture and cyberbullying (Bailey and Steeves). Drawing on the work of Mary Bernstein and Renate Reimann, Garcia-Gomez argues, "examining the persistent gender-blindness in bullying draws a mixed picture regarding conflict management reasons on the one hand and more feminism-related reasons on the other" (245).
Incorporating the voices of girls and young women in research about gendered cyberbullying is not only ethical but also central to deciphering important questions regarding how young people define cyberbullying and perceive its impacts. Many studies have found that adults and young respondents differ in where they draw the line between harassment and cyberbullying: young respondents, for example, often use the word "drama" to describe sexist and racist comments or personal attacks (Dixon et al.; Kilpatrick and Joiner; Shariff). A dialogue between this body of work and existing literature on cyberbullying may indeed be productive (Dobson; Mazzarella). It will only be through bringing girls' voices into dialogue with technology and education theory and policy that we will understand the complex and varied ways in which they negotiate digital environments (Bailey and Steeves; Kearney). By listening to girls' voices and taking their media production seriously, researchers of cyberbullying can move closer to documenting the needs that girls identify and to suggesting possible strategies through which to address the phenomenon in its full complexity. Further, the lack of definition around cyberbullying is unsurprising considering that there is little to no consensus, legal or otherwise, among researchers, policy makers, or law enforcement agencies about what constitutes online harassment (Duggan et al.). Significantly, only 19 percent of 800 teenagers aged 12 to 17 in a recent American survey reported being bullied, but 88 percent of those same adolescents reported having witnessed mean or cruel behaviour online (Lenhart et al., "Social"). This discrepancy suggests that it is important to consider young people's definitions of the key terms in delineating cyberbullying and its online/offline impacts. The role that bystanders might play in an online environment (Dillon and Bushman) and the ways in which identity factors contribute to cyberbullying experiences (Stoll and Block) are also crucial registers to explore. Research such as that conducted by Jessalynn Keller, who takes girls' new media practices and blogging seriously, represents an important step forward within emerging girls' digital culture studies. (15)
As has been well documented by leading scholars in the field of female violence, the trend toward criminalizing girls' behaviour has almost always gone hand in hand with a sexualizing of girls' deviance (Carrington; Gelsthorpe; Gelsthorpe and Worrall). It is evident from mass media moral panics, cyberbullying literature, and girls' voices that notions of citizenship are unequivocally gendered. The "good" girl, the "bad" girl, and the "mean" girl are repetitive tropes around femininity (Ahmed; Butler; Jiwani, "Erasing"), and as Loraine Gelsthorpe and Gilly Sharpe note, they pervade mass media and much scholarly work on female violence (47). Girlhood scholars have to navigate and unpack tropes of girls' and women's aggression as we move into the future of cyberbullying studies (Kilty and Frigon; Ringrose and Renold). It is clear from the lack of scholarship that attempts to parse how these harmful tropes are connected to racialization and sexuality that intersectional researchers should take these significant connections into account when designing future research projects on cyberviolence. Ongoing studies such as "The Cyber and Sexual Violence Project," critical research into feminist theories of female violence (Carrington), and research on gendered cyberbullying highlight the importance of interrogating and challenging the terms structuring the cyberbullying debate.
Emerging feminist studies also point to cyberviolence as a gendered social phenomenon that may have much to teach us about girls' participation in digital culture. Academic community-based projects should seek nuanced understandings of how gendered cyberbullying intersects with identity categories such as race, sexual orientation, and age. In doing so, we will better be able to identify potential strategies for addressing the issue. Feminist scholars have highlighted the ways in which aggression has traditionally been understood through ontological and epistemological arguments that position the male experience as normative (Alder and Worrall; Uprichard). Moreover, the preoccupation with relational aggression beginning in the 1990s was built on a paternalistic historical framework of female violence that left female relational aggression under-researched (Garcia-Gomez) and the assumption that females were uniquely conniving and manipulative unchallenged. Moving forward, scholars will need to draw on theories that recognize girls' aggression as existing in lived experiences and through negotiations with girlhood that are always "produced and negotiated (by all of us, but especially by girls) in particular historical and political moments" (Griffin 29). This is important as we move closer to shifting the terms of the cyberbullying debate and as we unpack binary discourses around girls' meanness.
From Mean Girl to Passive Victim: Popular and Scholarly Discourses around Girls and Cyberbullying
Popular trade books such as Paula Todd's Extreme Mean and recent media coverage of girls' statistically rare violence--the Wisconsin "Creepy Pasta" stabbings, for example--promote the belief that girls' aggression is unique. (16) Girls' meanness is represented as somehow uniquely conniving (see Prothrow-Stith and Spivak; Simmons) and damaging (L. Brown). Girls' expressions of aggression and violence are also marginalized and represented as monstrous. These trends are well documented in feminist criminology and feminist theory (Gelsthorpe and Worrall). Additionally, tropes of adult women as either in danger or dangerous (Kilty and Frigon 41) are often observed by theorists investigating representations of violent women. This is useful context for understanding the ways in which representations of girls' aggression are informed by patriarchal judicial, cultural, and legislative framings (see Jiwani, Discourses). Conventional scripts of femininity, moreover, are fundamental to reading girls' aggression as they are always bound up in representations of girls' bullying (Ringrose, "'Just'"; Ringrose and Renold). Discourses on girls' aggression often frame their behaviours in ways that pathologize sexual risk-taking (Godfrey) and transgressions of traditional femininity (Kilty and Frigon). This larger discursive context is crucial when approaching girls' voices in cyberbullying research because "the talk of girls both constitutes and is constituted by the construct of girlhood" (M. Brown 68). We must contend with mainstream constructions of girlhood and the ways in which young people internalize them as we work with girls to define the terms structuring the cyberbullying debate.
Current girls' digital culture scholarship on bullying suggests a productive way forward for attending to the unique contexts and impacts of cyberbullying for girls that resists old tropes of femininity and girlhood. For example, when one repeatedly deploys the concept of relational aggression to explain girls' bullying--girls' supposed unique capacity for spreading rumours, for example--one can end up stereotyping girls rather than examining the specificities that shape their bullying experiences. This is especially important in the case of cyberbullying from a girlhood studies perspective. Girls and women are disproportionately affected by cyberbullying, which we know occurs in the present context of increasing online misogyny (Chess and Shaw; Hess; Smith et al.). Girls and women experience more hostility in online environments than boys and men (Marcotte). (17) The insights emerging from significant work by scholars of digital girls' culture that approach girls as agents and content producers offer a better framework for critical approaches to gendered cyberbullying. Bringing digital girls' culture research into conversation with cyberbullying research with an intersectional lens offers a concrete way to study this far-reaching phenomenon while avoiding the pitfalls of pathologizing girls' behaviour. Often the most visible cases of female violence, now fourishing in representations of cyberbullying in the public sphere, focus on anxiety around white middle-class girlhood (Jiwani, Discourses). These cases tend to exceptionalize girls' violence and ignore the context of violence among, for example, racialized girls who are disproportionate victims of violence (Rajiva and Batacharya). Marginalized girls' voices are pushed to "the margins of social life and social discourse" (M. Brown 67). The current cyberbullying debate continues this troubling tradition.
Unfortunately, it is not only representations in popular culture and mass media that normalize "meanness" as a natural element of female sociality (Simmons). Much of the early literature in social science reflects similarly reductionist or de-contextualized analyses of relational bullying (see Simmons). When studies of bullying began to turn to girls and young women, the "good girl" and "bad girl" stereotypes crossed over into psychological and psychosocial research on girls, aggression, and bullying (Crick and Nelson; Olweus, "Bullying"; Smith et. al.). For example, Terri Apter and Ruthellen Josselson argue that female friendship is a "school of correction" (211) in which strict norms around femininity and body image are not simply enforced but created, arguing that acceptable codes of femininity are "established anew in each generation" (211). Apter and Josselson go so far as to attribute food obsession and negative body image to the norms of the friendship circle (66), thereby re-inscribing the notion of girls' inherent "meanness" rather than exploring how girls' own internalization of misogyny and sexism "contribute... to a unique context for girls' experience of, and participation in, violence toward girls" (M. Brown 66). The "mean girl" is a pervasive theme in the popular discourse around girls and bullying (McClung). The popular film Mean Girls (2004) is a case in point. Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey), the teacher appointed to resolve the conflict that arises when the mean girls' gossip is exposed, offers a warning to the girls of the school: "You all have to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it OK for guys to call you sluts and whores." With this comment, Ms. Norbury rehearses stereotypes of girl-on-girl violence without taking into consideration how girls' aggression may have roots in prescribed gender roles.
While Jessica Ringrose and Emma Renold acknowledge the frequently indirect presentation of girls' bullying styles, they suggest that a "range of normative cruelties" (Winch 11) underpins one's recognition as a gendered subject. In other words, Ringrose and Renold argue that for girls who engage in normalized practices such as policing other girls' sexuality, performances of femininity are often the only institutionally acceptable forms of aggression. Garcia-Gomez interrogates the assumptions underpinning much of the work on relational aggression. In his studies of personal weblogs, he points to relational aggression as a discourse through which girls narrate broken relationships by either performing or challenging traditional gender roles. For example, his discourse analysis of girls' Facebook pages demonstrates how girls often adopt a masculine subject position in order to express anger, often as it relates to their experience with sexual relationships. This is one example of a discursive strategy that girls employ and that results in the expression of emotions or opinions that challenge the heteronormative feminine sexuality (251). Garcia-Gomez also finds that new communities formed through computer-mediated communications such as blogs construct institutions that maintain a cult of femininity in which girls' behaviour is mediated through other girls' policing of femininity scripts as well as girls' own negotiations of "appropriate" gender performances. Girls may take up relationally aggressive dialogue in order to challenge "proper" performances of girlhood as maintained by heterosexualized competition (Garcia-Gomez). As with the work of Ringrose and Renold, Garcia-Gomez's study is instructive about how to analyze girls' negotiations of online/offline aggression.
The contradictions around girlhood must also be understood within the context of friendship and relationship. As we know, the dominant culture often presents these as mandatory (boyd; Simmons), with "niceness" operating as a prerequisite for continued membership in friendship circles and social networks (Ringrose, "'Just'"; Simmons). As previously discussed, it is becoming clear that more often than not it is precisely the subjects that fail to properly perform and embody the contradictions of heteronormative femininity (e.g., pretty, but not sexy) that are most often revealed in first-person interviews to be targets of bullying (Bailey et al.; Jaffer and Brazeau). In the Canadian context, as in the US, it is clear that the likelihood of becoming a target of cyberbullying is heavily linked to one's membership in identifiable groups, such as those of racialized individuals and/or LGBTQIA, whether they self-identify or are perceived to be in one of these identity categories (Jaffer and Brazeau; Langos).
Future cyberbullying research with girls must attend to sexual orientation, gender identity, race, class, and ability if we are to move beyond dominant bullying frameworks that too often rely on racist, heterosexist, and classist logic. As Yasmin Jiwani argues, the erasure of race in the press and in judicial framings of Reena Virk's murder reflects a broader denial of systemic racism in Canada that renders immigrant and racialized girls' bodies particularly vulnerable to violence ("Erasing").
Conclusion: Toward Intersectional Cyberbullying Research
As we begin to frame future intersectional research on girls and cyberbullying, it is necessary to note that just having access to experiences of girlhood is a privilege, as transnational feminist scholars remind us (Kirk et al.). (18) The national study "Young Canadians in a Wired World" (Steeves) provides an example of an intersectional approach to the study of digital youth culture that seeks to account for the ways in which socio-economic and identity factors inform young people's experiences of digital culture and their lives on- and offline. Recent reports produced for MediaSmarts (2014) offer data on the ways in which Canadian youth encounter and perceive racism and sexism. The data, collected to examine the role of networked technologies in the lives of youth, reveals that young people in Canada frequently navigate racist and sexist content online. (19) It is also important to note that much of the moral panic around the "mean girl" in mass media really concerns middle-class white girls who fit normative definitions of femininity and whose bodies therefore, as Judith Butler has argued, matter more than others: the majority of stories publicized in venues such as Newsweek and New York Times in the 1990s and early 2000s featured white adolescents from middle-class homes (M. Brown). By putting the growing literature on girls' digital culture in conversation with cyberbullying literature and by devoting critical attention to the social networking sites and digital spaces where girls and young women act as content producers navigating aggression, racism, and sexism, we can learn a great deal about exactly how girls "do" gender and aggression in digital culture. Meanings around gendered cyberbullying, produced with girls as co-creators and research collaborators, have a lot to teach us about contemporary girlhood, the possibilities of participation in the public sphere, and the politics of performing "girl" online.
(1) Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide after an image of her sexual assault was circulated throughout her school and hometown. The visibility of Parsons's suicide, and that of Amanda Todd, as well as Parsons's father's activist lobbying, inspired the Nova Scotia task force on cyberbullying (Hess).
(2) Bill C-13, or the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, amends the Criminal Code to make the non-consensual distribution of "intimate images" a new offense (Bill C-13, Third Reading, 2014). Colloquially known as the "cyberbullying bill," C-13 allows telecommunications companies to hand data over to the police (Wingrove), a vast expansion of surveillance powers (Bailey). Bill C-13 has drawn significant opposition from a diverse range of critics (Dyer).
(3) Amy Hasinoff defines "sexting" as "the practice of sending sexually explicit images or text through mobile phones or via Internet applications" ("Sexting" 449).
(4) For example, investigative journalist Paula Todd recently turned her attention to cyberabuse, including cyberbullying, trolling, harassing, cyberbullying, and extortion. Her book Extreme Mean examines several prominent cases in order to question, among many other issues, how these experiences impact victims' offline lives.
(5) For a fuller explanation of how gender is largely left out of analyses of cyberviolence, please see Li.
(6) For an example, see Schneider et al.
(7) In this study the authors link "electronic victimization" to "females' alcohol use."
(8) For an example, see Carrington.
(9) Relational aggression is indirect and includes behaviours such as spreading rumours, as well as excluding and ostracizing an individual (Chisholm 79; Simmons).
(10) For a review of anti-bullying programs, see Galloway and Roland.
(11) See Bailey for a detailed analysis of the ways in which criminalizing cyberbullying through laws such as Bill C-13 and gender-blind policy is not a productive solution.
(12) For reasons related to Indigenous politics, I do not advocate using this term. I use it here as it forms a key (and problematic) part of the history of digital culture studies.
(13) The whiz kid in Galaxy Quest (1999) embodies this stereotype. The fact that this stereotype normalizes young, white, adolescent males as technologically precocious further demonstrates the gendered and racialized nature of adult perceptions of young people's digital culture (Nakamura).
(14) Technological determinism, described by dana boyd as "magical thinking" is the process whereby causal-historical narratives are created through the concept of technology as initiating and activating social changes (please see Marx for a full discussion).
(15) Recent ethnographic studies (Allen; boyd; Dixon et al.) have found that boys and girls often define instances of cyberbullying as "drama," a practice that is gendered feminine. This sometimes subtle gendering is necessary information in analyses of qualitative research on the topic of gendered cyberbullying and in the contextualizing of empirical data, especially when read against Pew Research Center's study of online harassment (Duggan et al.). The study that included data from a self-administered survey by 2,829 respondents found that: 70% of people 18-24 have experienced some form of online harassment; young women are the demographic most at risk of experiencing online harassment; and online harassment is most often reported as occurring in social media spaces (Smith and Duggan). These findings reflect the need for greater community-based research and knowledge exchange so that adults can "begin by understanding teenage realities from teenage perspectives... in order to support youth as they navigate aggression and conflict in a networked society" (boyd 120). Further, focus groups and interviews with girls and young women reveal that "drama" reproduces normative conceptions of gender and aggression (Ringrose and Renold), plays out in social media and game spaces, and is defined by young people as being distinct from bullying and conflict (boyd; Simmons). Clarifying terminology will help us avoid recycling the gender-blind zero-tolerance school policies that often extend paternalistic traditions of criminalizing girls' behaviour, supposedly for their own protection and welfare (Gelsthorpe and Worrall).
(16) As Mirko Bagaric noted recently in The Guardian, coverage of women's violence and punishments continue to receive disproportionate publicity despite the fact that it is a statistical rarity; we see this extending to girls' violence. The "Creepy Pasta" stabbing incident was a "very unusual" (Hanna and Ford) case that involved three twelve-year-old girls in Wisconsin. Two of the girls attempted to kill their friend after a sleepover in order to please a fictional online character called Slenderman that is popular on horror genre websites. This case was given an unusual amount of press in the United States (Hanna and Ford).
(17) For example, the movement GamerGate, which targeted female journalists and public figures, brought a lot of attention to the way misogyny is normalized in many online social spaces. The hashtag GamerGate was mobilized by (mostly) male gamers after a personal attack on independent game designer Zoe Quinn in order to intimidate and harass vocal feminists in the gaming industry and in academia.
(18) While a few scholars (Slonje and Smith) still argue that there are only minimal gender differences observed in cyberbullying behaviour, empirical evidence suggests that boys are more often than not perpetrators of cyberbullying (see Jaffer and Brazeau). There is broad consensus in the extant studies that young women use social media in greater numbers, are disproportionately targeted, and experience cyberbullying and online harassment differently than boys and young men (Mishna et al.; Navarro and Jasinski; O'Connell et al.; Vandebosch and Van Cleemput).
(19) The "Young Canadians in a Wired World" data was collected in 2013 through a classroom-based survey of 5,436 students in grades four to eleven in every Canadian province and territory.
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Hayley Crooks is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Institute of Feminist & Gender Studies at the University of Ottawa and a research partner on the project Cyber and Sexual Violence: Helping Communities Respond (a collaboration between the Atwater Library and Computer Centre and TAG Concordia). Her research focuses on the intersections of media and gendered violence. Her dissertation, drawing on a professional background in documentary filmmaking, utilizes participatory video (PV) with girls as a methodology through which to explore cyberbullying. The goal of the dissertation is to examine the ways in which girls' definitions and perceptions of cyberbullying simultaneously challenge and rehearse mainstream discourses around girls' bullying practices.
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|Author:||Crooks, Hayley R.|
|Publication:||Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2016|
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