Are Gossip Sites To Blame For High School Bullies?

In an essay published in the Sydney Morning Herald, author Paul Sheehan blames websites like Perez Hilton, TMZ, and Jezebel, for promoting a culture of girl-on-girl crime. Thanks Paul!

In his op-ed piece, titled "I married an Ascham bully," Sheehan begins by briefly describing a recent cyberbullying scandal that occurred at a New South Wales school:

Several teenagers at an elite Sydney girls school are coming to terms with the full magnitude of their public betrayal via the internet. Where to begin? One has had her genitalia discussed in anatomical detail. Another has had her face likened to a koala's. A third has learnt that her circle of friends is not friendly at all: "She thinks she's best friends with lots of people but they actually hate her."

As a result of the incident, two girls have left the school in disgrace. School administrators have expressed their distress over the recent trend of spreading rumors via social networking websites like Myspace and Facebook. One mother has come forward, saying that her daughter, a recent graduate, also suffered from bullying while she was at Ascham. "When my daughter was there it was text messaging," she said.

But who is to blame for the cruelty of these students? Certainly not the girls themselves. Sheehan places the blame squarely on the internet, where gossip spreads like "a disease." He writes,

Gossip has become even bigger than porn on the internet. Much bigger. Facebook is largely gossip. So are the other big social networking sites. Millions of eyeballs also go to gossip sites like Go Fug Yourself, devoted to fashion and celebrity putdowns. (The terms "fug" and "fugly" are short for f—-ing ugly, though the authors pretend it stands for fantastically ugly). Or PerezHilton.com, which bills itself as "Hollywood's most hated website", or The Superficial (Because You're Ugly), or Dlisted (Be Very Afraid), or TMZ.com (Careful Who You're Kissing), or Pink is the New Blog (Everybody's Business Is My Business), or Jezebel (Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women, Without Airbrushing). All have large followings among young women.

While we don't want to deny that the internet does provide a terrible platform for certain types of cruelty, Sheehan's piece is annoying for several reasons (and not just because he mentions this site). Sheehan seems to assume that this is something only girls do, that this kind of cruel body snarking and malicious gossip is somehow unique to the female gender. He does not mention that several of the websites he include are run or staffed by men (PerezHilton, Dlisted, The Superficial). When he does mention Perez Hilton, it is to mock him for being a "failed actor and a failed journalist." Sheehan ends his argument with a rather exaggeratedly dire view of the future:

Because the internet is so unfiltered and so vast, it has become a far more accurate reflection of the human condition than the traditional mass media. The self-portrait that has emerged is not flattering. The explosion in productivity, transparency, community and knowledge has been accompanied by largely unfettered pettiness, vituperation and schadenfreude. This is the encompassing public medium of the young. This is their stage and their minefield.

This may have been an interesting critique at one point, but I can't help but feel like we've heard this all before. Like people in the workplace, high school kids have always been cruel: the internet has just provided them with a new platform for spewing their hatred. Maybe instead of pointing fingers and trying to identify the culprit — when clearly, there is no one source of the bullying virus, to borrow Sheehan's metaphor — we should all focus our energies on working to provide alternative ways to talk about young women.

I Married An Ascham Bully [Sydney Morning Herald]

Earlier: Female "Bullies" At Work: What Are These Pieces Really Trying To Say?

[Image via Gossip Girl official website]