Most of you reading this blog are painfully aware that the final days of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi’s life played out on the Internet. Roommate Dharun Ravi allegedly used Twitter to encourage others to watch a film of Clementi in a sexual encounter, using cyberspace as the platform for overt bullying. As a result, Clementi committed suicide, using Facebook to post a note saying, “jumping off the gw bridge sorry,” before he leaped to his death.
Clementi’s suicide started a barrage of media coverage about the seriousness of cyber-bullying and statements by numerous celebrities including Tim Gunn of TV’s Project Runway, singer Eminem, and talk show host Ellen Degeneres. The Clementi suicide underscored the digital age we live in, but it also reminded me of another type of bullying that takes place in cyberspace and in real time, and is often overlooked—relational bullying. Relational bullying, or covert bullying, is defined as socially manipulative nonphysical behavior intended to harm another individual. You may have had an experience or two with relational bullying when you were a child or adolescent and particularly if you are female. But it can also happen to adults, particularly in the workplace or in organizations and is a significant cause of suicide.
Relational bullying causes considerable psychological pain leading to social anxiety, loneliness, depression, and substance abuse. Studies indicate that relational bullying diminish young people’s social interactions, cause them to feel less safe, and sometimes even encourage them to bring a weapon to school. In brief, there are five types of relational bullying:
1) Stonewalling: Stonewalling [aka: the silent treatment] is a situation in which one person purposefully ignores another. Example: If two teenagers are angry at another teen, they may choose or agree to ignore the other teen completely and without explanation.
2) Exclusion: A single individual may be purposefully excluded from a group of friends or colleagues and essentially cut out from all activities and participation in the group. It differs from the “silent treatment” in that the group makes sure that the excluded individual knows that he or she is not allowed to participate in the group.
3) Taunting: Taunting includes disparaging remarks made directly to the individual and continues even when the individual is apparently distressed or depressed.
4) Gossip: Bullies will often create and spread rumors about others behind their backs; at times harmful statements are even made within earshot. The goal is to ruin reputations and damage self-image through hearsay and exclusive conversations; the digital age has made this form of relational bullying easier through text messaging and social networking platforms like Facebook and My Space.
5) Conditional Friendship: “I’ll only be your friend if…” is used or implied in some way. For example, an individual may not be able to leave a group or must behave in a certain way or expect punishment, ridicule, or gossip for non-compliance.
The inevitable question about any type of bullying is this: Why? Most agree that in relational bullying, the intention is to socially isolate the individual and satisfy needs for power-over, control, and self-worth. The bigger question is what do we do about relational bullying and other forms of bullying? As trauma specialists, we cannot help but be committed to ending bullying of all types and for all children; we also witness firsthand the devastating effects of bullying on the children we see in schools, clinics, domestic violence shelters, and other settings. Until next time, please feel free to post your thoughts, impressions, and stories about bullying in the comments section of this blog. In the next few posts, I’ll try to address intervention for survivors of bullying through some practical strategies with the help of colleagues at the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children.
Here are a few excellent websites to get you started in learning more about relational bullying:
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