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by Larry Magid
As I previously wrote, cyberbullying is a serious problem, but not an epidemic. Yet, there continue to be widespread reports that bullying has reached epidemic proportions. This misinformation can actually have the unintended consequence of increasing bullying.
One study, from the Crimes Against Children Research Center, showed that bullying has actually decreased in recent years, and no credible studies have shown a significant recent increase. The recent EU Kids Online (PDF) study from the London School of Economics found that “across Europe, 6% of 9 to 16-year-old Internet users have been bullied online, and 3% confess to having bullied others.” In the U.S., the Cyberbullying Research Center found that 20% of ”randomly selected 11 to 18 year old students in 2010 indicated they had been a victim at some point in their life.”
Even the most optimistic numbers indicate a problem but, I wouldn’t call this an “epidemic” of either bullying or cyberbullying as some articles and TV shows have suggested.
Some well-meaning advocacy groups have contributed to the misinformation by releasing data suggesting that the majority (in some cases the vast majority) of youth have been bullied or have bullied others, though most surveys have put the percentages much lower — typically around 20%. One reason for the discrepancy in the research results is the lack of a uniformly agreed upon definition of bullying. Some studies ask whether “anyone has ever been mean to you” or has “hurt your feelings.” Based on this definition, I am surprised that the rate isn’t near 100%.
A more widely accepted definition of bullying comes from the Olweus Bullying Prevention program which says that bullying has “three important components:”
1. Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
2. Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
3. Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.
When these components are used to determine incidents, the rate of bullying is substantially lower. Of course, you can argue with the definition, especially when it comes to online or so-called “cyberbullying,” because – online — a single act of bullying can be repeated over time and it’s harder to agree on the definition of an “imbalance of power,” where a person’s online “power,” influence or presence may have little or nothing to do with traditional means of obtaining power such as physical strength, appearance or popularity.
Social norms research shows accurate reporting makes kids safer
Putting the bullying problem into its proper perspective doesn’t minimize it, but actually helps prevent it from getting worse. I know that may seem counterintuitive, but there is a lot of solid research that shows that if people overestimate anti-social or harmful behavior, they are more likely to engage in it themselves. In other words, reporting accurately about the rate of bullying actually makes kids less likely to bully others. Besides, as my ConnectSafely.org co-director Anne Collier wrote in NetFamilyNews, “Kids deserve the truth about cyberbullying.”
Much of this research focuses on health related activities such as smoking, alcohol abuse and overeating, but there is also data on the impact of peer perceptions on bullying.
Overestimating contributes to the problem
A paper (PDF) published in the April, 2011 edition of Group Processes Intergroup Relations, by H. Wesley Perkins, David W. Craig and Jessica M. Perkins, shows that “variation in perceptions of the peer norm for bullying was significantly associated with personal bullying perpetration and attitudes.” As the authors pointed out, “decades of research in social psychology … have demonstrated the strong tendency of people to conform to peer norms as they look to others in their midst to help define the situation and give guidance on expected behaviors in the group or cultural setting.”
The authors also observed that “adolescents and young adults (incorrectly) tend to believe that risky or problem behaviors and attitudes are most common among peers and think protective responsible action is rare,” and that “these misperceptions then contribute to or exacerbate the problem behavior as more youth begin to support and engage in the behavior than would otherwise be the case if norms were accurately perceived.”
Bullying is not normal and it’s not OK
To put it simply, over-estimating bullying makes it seem like it’s common. And, so the reasoning goes, if it’s common, it must be normal and if it’s normal, it must be OK. Well, it’s not OK and, fortunately, it’s not normal. And that’s exactly what anti-bullying programs need to emphasize.
Norms awareness campaigns
The authors of the study recommend that schools engage in awareness campaigns that emphasize that most kids don’t bully. In their paper, they give examples of positive media campaigns to help reinforce behaviors that are both positive and normal.
Responsible media coverage
While media coverage about bullying can help raise awareness and lead to positive results, it’s important that it be accurate and reasonable. Coverage that exaggerates either the size of the problem or the likely outcomes does little to help and can actually hurt. It’s also important to realize that the impact of bullying can range from mildly annoying to extremely serious. And while it is true that bullying can be a contributing factor to some suicides, it’s also true that it’s rarely the only factor. What’s more, the vast majority of youth who are bullied are able to handle it without extreme reactions.
Parents, educators, government leaders, non-profits, the media, religious organizations and, of course, young people themselves need to step up our efforts to create a positive social climate but we must do so without resorting to histeria and exaggeration. For more on bullying, visit the International Bullying Prevention Association.
Ahead of CBS News’ 48 Hours special on bullying, ConnectSafely.org co-director and CBS News and CNET Technology analyst Larry Magid spoke with with Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. You can listen to the entire interview as a podcast and read more at CNET News.com.
Larry’s One minute CBS News Tech Talk segment with Justin
Larry’s One minute CBS News Tech Talk segment with International Bullying Prevention Assocaiton board member Dr. Patti Agatston
Here is the complete transcript of the interview with Dr. Patchin:
LARRY: Larry Magid, CBS News and CNET. There’s been a lot of talk about bullying and cyberbullying and sometimes what we hear might not actually reflect the facts, which is why I had a chat with Dr. Justin Patchin, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eua Claire and Co-Director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. I started out by asking the differences and similarities between cyberbullying and regular bullying.
JUSTIN: Oh they’re very similar. Basically cyberbullying would be bullying behaviors carried out using and facilitated through technology. So a lot of the same kinds of things that we see occurring at school and neighborhoods like harassment or disrespecting or rumors or gossip are now being carried out online. And while they’re not fundamentally different there are also unique challenges created by technology – the perceived anonymity, the vulnerability, the fact that the target can be anywhere at any time and be susceptible to attacks from the bully. The problem with, I think, a lot of parents keeping up with what teens are doing online so they have a tough time monitoring their behaviors, good or bad. I think technology really creates certain challenges for adults who are trying to keep up with the relationship problems among adolescents.
LARRY: When I grew up there was a saying that I’m sure you’ve heard a million times, “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” That doesn’t seem to be the case, does it?
JUSTIN: It’s definitely not the case. I mean talk to Tina Meier or John Hallahan or Mark Neblett or any of these parents who lost kids being directly related to experience of cyberbullying. When you had a number of adolescents that got lost, something is really wrong. I think it goes back to certainly some of us can better handle certain types of harassment or humiliation than others and while being called names or rumors being spread about us may not seem like that big of a deal to us, it certainly is to many people, especially adolescents. You have to remember to an adolescent the primary influence are his peers and what they thought and so while certainly physical assaults or bullying is bad, even just the verbal or the relational aggression can be equally as bad for certain kids.
LARRY: Are there certain kids or certain types of kids that are more vulnerable, kids who for one reason or another stand out or are different than many of their peers?
JUSTIN: That’s a good question. And certainly we’re seeing certain teens targeted while in general, anybody is susceptible to bullying or cyberbullying. We’ve been exploring certain issues, we know that teens who have low self-esteem are more likely to be the target of a cyberbully. We know that there is a connection to depression. What we don’t know is, for example, whether or not the experience with bullying or cyberbullying causes one to have low-esteem or causes one to be depressed or if these teens just have low self-esteem or are behaving in a way that sort of makes them a more attractive target. We do know that those students who tell us they are non-heterosexual are more likely to be targeted by bullies and cyberbullies and we also know that they’re more likely to engage in cyberbullying and bullying behavior. So, as much as we’d like to find and identify a profile of a target or a bully there are a lot of factors that come into play and there’s really no one perfect scenario. But any time a teen identifies another as being different in some way, whatever that is, they are a likely target.
LARRY: You mentioned suicide and indeed we have seen some very high profile cases of teens who were bullied or cyberbullied and then went on to take their own lives. But based on what you just said before where you said essentially if there are correlations but we can’t prove causation, what do we know about the relationship between bullying and suicide? And what don’t we know about that relationship?
JUSTIN: There’s a lot more that we don’t know than what we do know. We do know that those who experience bullying or cyberbullying are more likely to experience suicidal ideation, to attempt suicide, but again, I’m not aware of any research that has been able to isolate the causal ordering of this. To be able to say that X causes Y, there haven’t been any longitudinal studies exploring this relationship. But again, we do know there’s a relationship, we just don’t understand fully the nature of that relationship and while we can’t say for sure that one causes the other, it’s certainly something we need to take note of. So saying or drawing the conclusion that bullying causes suicide is probably an over-reach at this point but again, like you said, we see tons of examples or at least many examples in the media where we sort of allow them to draw that conclusion when the research really hasn’t been collected in a way that makes that relationship any clearer.
LARRY: Speaking of research in the media, there is also this notion out there that bullying is an epidemic and that bullying is on the rise. Is there any empirical data that tells us to, No. 1, whether it is on the rise or perhaps even on the decline? And No. 2, just how prevalent is bullying and cyberbullying? Perhaps you can break those into separate numbers if you have them.
JUSTIN: Sure. We’ve been studying cyberbullying specifically for almost ten years. We’ve done seven or eight formal studies and we’ve defined cyberbullying pretty consistently over those years and we’ve looked at different populations, different samples, different schools, different regions and in general across the board we estimate that about one in five teens had experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime and we asked them about certain types of behaviors that they’d experienced in the last 30 days, like rumors being spread around them, view of technology or cell phone text messages. We have nine different behaviors that we look at. We feel about 10% of teens have experienced two or more of those, one or more of those two or more times in the last 30 days, about 10%. We still see more traditional school yard bullying going on today than cyberbullying, which is kind of interesting and some will call it intuitive, perhaps it will change over the next several years. I’m not aware of any longitudinal data that has demonstrated a significant increase in the behaviors. We are certainly hearing about more cyberbullying, it’s coming to the attention of researchers and the media more often now than it was seven or eight years ago. Teens are slightly more likely to tell adults about their experiences of cyberbullying. When we first started studying this less than 15% of targets of cyberbullying told adults about their experiences, now it’s maybe 25% to 30% at best. It’s still low, but it’s getting better. So if adults were to say that it’s increasing significantly, it’s certainly not an epidemic when we’re only talking about one in five, but it’s still a concern that we need to take very seriously.
LARRY: I’m sure you’re familiar with Norm’s research which suggests that if you think all of your friends are smokers, you’re more likely to smoke. If you think all of your friends have a healthy lifestyle, you’re more likely to have a healthy lifestyle. Does that Norm’s approach in any way apply to bullying? Could we be in a way going about this the wrong way by implying that there’s an epidemic as opposed to saying behaving properly is actually normal and bullying is kind of the odd way that a small percentage of people behave?
JUSTIN: I agree 100%. I think it’s very important that we are very specific and very clear with adolescents the nature of this problem. In fact, one of the activities that I deal with in some of my seminars is ask students to give me an estimate about how many, for example, how many teens have cyberbullied others. And somebody will shout out a number like 60% or 70%. And then I’ll ask them, “okay raise your hand if any higher than that,” the vast majority of students will raise their hand and will be shocked when I tell them it’s only about 10% or 12% who have done it in the last 30 days. We have an expression about that and say, “look, the media and many adults don’t trust teens these days because they assume they’re engaging in really bad behaviors online and off.” And it’s really their responsibility, I tell them it’s their responsibility to demonstrate to the adults in their lives that they are using technology safely, responsibly, appropriately and for them to sort of take some ownership over that, and if they see or hear about one of their classmates engaging in inappropriate behaviors to deal with it, to tell an adult that they trust, to get it addressed so it doesn’t spill over to them, where again, it makes it seem like they’re engaging in inappropriate behaviors. So I think it’s very important to have this discussion with teens so they know that the vast majority of teens are doing the right thing online.
LARRY: And speaking of that, let’s talk about what to do in the case of bullying. And let’s take three groups. One, the teens themselves, because you just kind of touched on that. Should you go to a friend if you’re bullied or should you just go to a trusted adult? Second, let’s talk about parents, and third of course, let’s talk about teachers and other educators. Starting with peers: What should we do or what should peers do to support each other and what should kids do in terms of reaching out or not reaching out to their peers?
JUSTIN: I think teens should reach out to those who are being bullied or cyberbullied. Now, that could mean a number of different things. It doesn’t necessarily mean them jumping in the middle of a fight at school. There’s a lot of things that bystanders can do without getting involved that explicitly or immediately. So certainly if a teen sees that something inappropriate is going on, if they feel like they need to get it out from an adult, that’s usually a good choice and hopefully every teen has somebody, an adult that they can go to, that they feel they can do the right thing. But I think even just the subtle message or the direct message to the target, so maybe there’s bullying or name calling or something on Facebook, whatever it is that you see, just expressing to the target of those words, that “look, I saw what was going on and that’s, you know what? I side with you, I mean, that stuff is wrong, it’s inappropriate, if there’s anything I can do to help, let me know. I mean, and so the more teens that get behind the target, I think the better off they’ll be and we’ve certainly heard examples. A number of examples where that’s been very effective at least in terms of giving the target some hope.
LARRY: And what about if somebody’s being bullied? Should they reach out to peers? Is that a safe and often productive thing to do or could that actually backfire?
JUSTIN: Right. So if a teen is being bullied or cyberbullied, they could certainly talk with a friend or try to get some help from a peer. Again, part of it depends on what kind of friends they have. If they don’t have a lot of good friends, they will have to reach beyond that. But what we tell kids who are being bullied or cyberbullied is to keep a record of what’s going on, keep the evidence, keep a journal, a diary, whatever it is. This is what happened, this is what the person did, this is how I responded, this is who I told, and this is how they responded, to keep a detailed record of these things. And if it gets to the point where you just can’t handle it anymore, you got to get help, whether it’s from a trusted friend or an adult. And a lot of times, sort of skipping ahead of this, the adult response. We know that teens are reluctant to come to adults about their experiences. And as I’ve said, in the best case scenario, only 25% or 30% of targets are telling adults about these things. In my mind, that’s our fault as adults because we’re not taking it seriously, we’re not responding effectively. And so if we just did a better job responding, if we were more effective at what we did, then these targets would feel more comfortable coming to us and knowing that there’d be a more effective resolution to this. And so we need to give targets of bullying some hope that the behavior will stop. And that’s all that they want. And oftentimes these targets don’t really want the bully to get in trouble, they just want the bullying to stop. And so whatever we can do as adults or peers or friends to get the behavior to stop is priority number one.
LARRY: So in terms of adults. What should you do and what shouldn’t you do if your child or someone close to you either says they’ve been bullied or you have reason to believe that they’ve been bullied?
JUSTIN: The number one thing for an adult when confronted with a bullying situation is to listen, to take in information to better understand the nature of the situation. If a teen confides in you that they’re being bullied or cyberbullied, it’s a big deal. It’s gotten to the point where they can’t handle it, it’s a serious concern in their lives. Maybe as an adult you’re hearing what’s going on, you’re thinking to yourself this doesn’t seem like it’s that big of a deal, it’s just words on a screen, it’s just a text message, what’s the big deal? But again, you’ve got to remember what it was like to be an adolescent. So if it gets to the point where a teen is talking to you about it, it’s a big deal. So take it seriously, convey to them that you’ll take this incident seriously, you’ll do everything in your power to get it to stop. And I like when parents and educators work together, sort of behind the scenes if it’s possible to get the behaviors to stop. So I’m not a big advocate of the parent of the target running over to the parent of a bully’s house and knocking on the door and saying, “You need to tell your kid to stop bullying my kid.” I think that can backfire too many times. I think that’s a little bit too direct of an approach. But for a parent to work with a counselor or an assistant principal to say, “this is what’s going on, what can we do to stop it?” Then maybe there are some things that the counselor can do sort of behind the scenes and letting the bully know that these kind of behaviors will not be tolerated, but doing it in a little more subtle indirect way without directing any more unneeded attention to the target.
LARRY: Okay, we’re just about out of time. Let’s just talk very quickly about educators. What should they be doing at this point?
JUSTIN: Educators are in a unique position because they see everything that’s going on at school and bullying and cyberbulling are essentially relationship problems. I think educators, probably more than anyone, understand these relationships. And so if there’s something going on, if there are changes in relationship problems that they identify, they need to address them immediately. Even if they hear a student calling another student a name or they hear somebody mis-using a term, maybe a student in back of the room is telling another student, “that’s so gay.” Right? And the teacher in the back of their mind thinks, “What? That’s inappropriate but I just don’t have the time to deal with it right now, I’ve got to grade these papers, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that.” It’s important for teachers to deal with that immediately because if it’s not handled it can just bubble up and eventually escalate to something more serious, additional harassment or actually physical altercations. So any time that any adult sees or hears any instance of harassment or humiliation or mis-use of language, they should address it immediately so that it doesn’t escalate to a more serious problem.
LARRY: And one last question and hopefully a fairly quick answer. I remember the time when racism was considered socially acceptable and when it was okay to make sexist jokes and homophobic jokes and things have gotten better, maybe not perfect but better. Are we headed in that direction when it comes to bullying?
JUSTIN: Well, I hope so. I am hopeful that we are. It took many generations before we as adults acknowledged school yard bullying as something worth stopping. And there are still some today who think it’s a rite of passage and something that everybody must go through but I think you’re right. I think the fact that most of us have moved beyond using certain words in certain ways, and I think it runs hope to this promise that we can make bullying sort of a behavior of the fringe, even more so than it is now. And I think we’re headed in that direction, I am hopeful that we’re headed in that direction. It’s an uphill battle with scarce resources and technology constantly changing and behavior always changing but I think that’s definitely the direction we want to work towards.
LARRY: Justin Patchin, the Co-Director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, and Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Wisconsin, Eua Claire, thank you very much.
JUSTIN: Thanks Larry.
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I recently interviewed Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., and Justin Patchin, Ph.D., of the Cyberbullying Research Center about their thoughts on the current state of cyberbullying legislation.
With the problem receiving so much media attention, it’s important to examine what has, can, should, and should not be done in terms of trying to come up with a legislative solution, and whether such a solution would be a help or a hindrance to both parents, kids, and educators who are grappling with the problem.
What is the current state of legislation on Cyberbullying at the federal, state and local level?
The current state of cyberbullying legislation is as follows: at last count, 44 states had laws regarding bullying, and 30 of those included some mention of electronic forms of harassment. Almost all of these laws simply direct school districts to have a bullying and harassment policy, though few delineate the actual content of such policies. Each state is different with respect to the extent that they specifically address electronic forms of harassment. Educators, parents, and law enforcement officers need to be sure to carefully review and understand the statutes in their own state to understand the formal legal implications of participating in cyberbullying.
Is there more legislating or rule-making going on in schools or in government?
I would say there is more rule-making going on in schools, and that is sometimes directly or indirectly related to the actions of legislators in that state. For example, meaningful legislation was passed in Massachusetts following the Phoebe Prince suicide. It defines bullying by including that which occurs in the real world and electronically, it requires teachers and staff to report bullying to administrators, it mandates investigation of every incident by school officials and reported to parents of the students involved, it requires annual training for school personnel on prevention and intervention, and instruction for students to deal with bullying as part of the educational curriculum.
In other states, though, school districts and private school heads are simply realizing that cyberbullying is a serious issue affecting a significant proportion of their kids – and are stepping up to reduce its prevalence, scope, and consequences through policy as well as through proactive strategies.
In your view, is there any danger of parents becoming less vigilant about cyberbullying because of either school distrcit rules or laws being put in place to deal with it?
I believe that when schools create and continually improve bullying and cyberbullying policies, it is essential to let parents know about those improvements, and marshal their support. I also believe that schools should enlist parental help by educating them through information sharing, speaker events, town hall meetings, and the maintenance of an open line of communication. Schools that simply work on response policies are doing their students – and the families of those students – a grand disservice by only doing the bare minimum.
Does having an unfunded and unspecified mandate to create a cyberbullying policy put schools in a dangerous position, or does it actually allow each school to be more flexible and tailor the policies to their own school?
I would like to see specific guidance from states about how and when schools can take action in cyberbullying incidents. Many states have taken the easy way out by simply passing laws saying effectively “schools need to deal with this.” Not only have they stopped short in terms of providing specific instructions or even a framework from which schools can evaluate their role, but they have not provided any additional resources to address these issues. Some states are now requiring schools to educate students and staff about cyberbullying or online safety more generally, but have provided no funding to carry out such activities. Unfunded mandates have become cliché in education, and this is just another example.
Moreover, school administrators are in a precarious position because they see many examples in the media where schools have been sued because they took action against a student when they shouldn’t have or they failed to take action when they were supposed to. Schools need help determining where the legal line is.
To be sure, schools should bring their bullying and harassment policies into the 21st Century by explicitly identifying cyberbullying as a proscribed behavior, but they need to move beyond the behaviors that occur on school grounds or those that utilize school-owned resources. But in order to do this they need guidance from their state legislators and Departments of Education so that they draft a policy and procedure that will be held up in court. School, technology, and privacy lawyers disagree about what should (or must) be in a policy. It’s no wonder many educators are simply throwing their hands up.
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