Dr Barbara SpearsDr Barbara Spears is a leading researcher in the fields of: cyberbullying, peer relationships, the social dynamics of schools, and girls’ peer relationships and bullying behaviours. Initially trained as a primary school teacher, she taught in the State school system for many years and has completed her PhD on middle-school girls’ perceptions and experiences of their friendships, indirect aggression and bullying.  In this interview  Dr Spears shares with us her inspiration to work in her field, her understanding of the culture of bullying and what she hopes will develop from her involvment in RMRC’s inaugural conference.

What drew you to your field? (Psychology, Law, Research, Journalism, Social Media...)
I was originally a Primary school teacher, but when I returned to study, I completed a PhD in girls’ peer relationships and bullying behaviours (1994) which naturally led into the covert and cyberbullying area as the internet became more common. I led the Insights into Covert Bullying study, a small, qualitative project for the Department of Education, Emploment and Workplace Relations (2007), which showed that young people were experiencing cyberbullying, not only as a covert practice, but also as an explicit, overt behaviour. This links with the notion of cyberbullying being both a private and a public behaviour. Currently, I am working on bystander behaviour in cyberbullying, as well as the Young and Well project: Keep It Tame.  As an educator, I like to make the research relevant to schools, looking to link evidence with practice.

Do you feel that there is a culture of bullying within Australia/world generally that needs addressing, if so how?
LOL!  This is a huge question and one not easily answered! Of course it needs addressing, but there is no “one size fits all” model that should be adopted. It is tempting to think that one program, or a national program, might “fix it”, but the reality is that this behaviour is so complex, that we really do need a multi-disciplinary approach, tackling several aspects simultaneously. 

As far as a culture of bullying in Australia or the world, we would have to acknowledge that schools are only reflections of what occurs in the community, so therefore, the trajectory of bullying which occurs as we move across and through the relationships in our lifespan, need constant revisiting. Ie we need to be addressing early years, and promoting positive social norms; but simultaneously, need to be addressing parenting practices so that bullying is not being modelled through adult relationships. Then there are dating relationships where the imbalance of power exists, evidenced as violent romantic relationships; and workplace bullying where the legitimate power roles ascribed to individuals are abused. Elder abuse is another form of societal bullying. In all, according to Debra Pepler, one of the world leaders in this field, bullying is a “ social relationship issue which requires relationship solutions”. And that takes time, effort and willingness to change.

What concerns you most about cyber-harassment?
Obviously, the social and emotional impact on those being victimised. One child who self-harms or attempts suicide is one too many.  One child who avoids school because of it, is one too many.

We need to be really careful however,  about how we use these terms.

Aggression is not harassment, which is also not bullying. They are all related, but are different.

Aggression involves a deliberate intent to harm.

Harassment often involves harm focused on belonging to a particular sub group: be it racial, sexual or religious.

Bullying, however, concerns not only a deliberate intent to hurt/harm, and is therefore never “accidental”, but also must involve a power difference: where one party has it, and the other does not, and where through repetition,  it leads to the targeted party becoming increasingly helpless to respond or retaliate.

Cyberbullying is deliberate, involves power, but the repetition factor can be different: something may be uploaded once to the internet, but it is the repeated viewing, or sending on, that ensures maximum impact and helplessness.

This conference looks at Cyber-harassment as a relevant issue for the whole community – not just youth. Can you comment on this.
Cyber aggression, cyber threat, cyber exploitation, cyber stalking, cyber harassment and cyber bullying, are ALL relevant  for the whole community, as these are relationship issues, and if we want to have ethical, digital citizenship for all, we must ALL be addressing these in many different ways.

We must stop normalising aggression and violence, whether it be on or offline.

Instead, we need to be normalising positive peer norms which uphold a civil society, such as respect for self and others,

Have you personally experienced Cyber-harassment?

Do you know of other colleagues/organisations who have?
Yes. I have looked at cyberbullying in a University sample of staff, and there are experiences from line managers and colleagues, students and outsiders.

From the collaborative approach of this conference, what do you hope to offer?
I hope to offer the foundation that research brings to any proposed intervention. We cannot intervene if we do not know what we are intervening against. We cannot prevent what we do not understand.

But most importantly: that cyberbullying is a social relationship problem: and that the community has a responsibility to promote values which provide social relationship solutions.

What do you hope to get out of being involved at this conference?
I would hope that the increased understanding and the collaborations forged, will serve to further our work in this are: of creating a safe and supportive online environment for all.

To see Dr Barbara Spears and many others speak on this important issue register for the Real Media Real Change Conference on Cyber-harassment in our Communities:  Addressing Public Safety in the Digital Age held on Friday 14th December at SCU, Lismore.

It’s free of charge, and welcomes many highly esteemed and deeply committed speakers, bringing a wealth of understanding and experience to the issue of Cyber-harassment.  Register now.

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