Much of our work over the last several years has focused on identifying the consequences associated with cyberbullying. We are especially interested in offline behaviors or experiences, as well as links to delinquency and school problems. And we are concerned with the outcomes of both targets and those who engage in cyberbullying. One particular problem behavior that we have found to be linked to cyberbullying is substance use. According to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Study, about 21% of high school seniors said they used marijuana and about 19% smoked cigarettes in the previous 30 days. About 41% of the seniors said they consumed alcohol in the last 30 days. Experimentation with illicit substances appears to be relatively common in high school, though a significant proportion of this population abstains from use.
We published a paper in 2008 which found the students who reported substance use (consumed alcohol or smoked marijuana) were significantly more likely to be involved in cyberbullying (both as a victim and offender – but the offender relationship was stronger) – see page 143 this paper. I also just quickly ran the relationship with our most recent data (about 4000 students from last school year) and found that those who used marijuana were 1.5 times more likely to be the victim of cyberbullying and 1.7 times more likely to engage in cyberbullying (both in the last 30 days while controlling for gender and age). Very similar findings were found for traditional bullying as well. So there clearly is a relationship between substance use and experience with bullying and cyberbullying.
It is important to acknowledge that since we have not yet been able to conduct a longitudinal study where we follow the same individuals over time, it is impossible for us to say that experience with cyberbullying causes teens to use drugs or consume alcohol. It is just as possible that using drugs causes teens to cyberbully others. All we can say is that the two or more behaviors are connected in some way. In fact it is quite likely that both cyberbullying and substance use are both related to some third variable (such as family problems or stressful life events). That said, this is additional evidence that what happens online is related to offline behaviors (and perhaps vice-versa). As always, there is more research that needs to be done.
Much of our work to teach adults about what teens are doing online is directed toward educators or parents, but increasingly we are working with law enforcement officers – especially those assigned to a school setting (school resource or liaison officers). Like the others, police officers often find themselves in a difficult situation when confronted with a cyberbullying incident because of unfamiliarity with the technology or ambiguity in currently laws not designed to address such behaviors. Despite deficiencies in the law, most officers recognize that their role goes beyond simply enforcement. This is especially true for school-based officers who are mentors, educators, investigators, first responders, and so much more. Even when it comes to responding to cyberbullying or other teen technology misuse, law enforcement officers should be encouraged to use their discretion to “handle” the particular situation in an informal and creative way, when appropriate. Threats of arrest or detention don’t usually deter students from misbehaving, because they often feel invincible or able to elude the law. But the student who develops a strong bond to an officer will no doubt follow the law voluntarily in order to avoid disappointing their mentor. This is related to the broader issue of the importance of developing a caring and respectful climate at school—one in which the school law enforcement officer is a contributing part.
Over the last couple of years, we have formally surveyed approximately 1,000 law enforcement officers (including over 300 school resource officers) to better understand their unique perspectives concerning cyberbullying and other online behavioral problems. I will be presenting some of this research at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Criminal Justice Association later this week in Chicago. In general, over 85% of the officers surveyed said that cyberbullying was a serious concern that warrants the response of law enforcement. Almost 90% of the school resource officers had dealt with a cyberbullying case “sometimes” or “often.” Interestingly, though, about 25% of the school resource officers and over 40% of the traditional law enforcement officers didn’t know if their state had a law specific to cyberbullying. If you are one of those people, see our summary here.
So what we have learned in our preliminary research and discussions with law enforcement officers is that they realize they have a role to play, but they need more training. More and more states are passing laws on bullying and cyberbullying and while most of the legislation focuses on the responsibilities of educators, many school administrators are turning to their law enforcement partner for assistance. If you are a school-based officer, then you are in the right place to learn about these issues. If you are an educator or parent, you might want to pass our site on to them so they have a resource to turn to.
If we want to stop cyberbullying, all of the adults who interact with students need to recognize it as something worth stopping. That means we should talk with adolescents about online responsibility and integrity and intervene when we see or hear something inappropriate. Again, that doesn’t mean we should arrest and formally sanction those who engage in bullying. We have long argued that most cyberbullying cases should be handled informally. I believe that law enforcement officers should be in on these efforts as well. We need to remember that the primary goal is to get the bullying, no matter where it is happening, to stop. The more we accept that as our underlying mission, the easier it will become to see what needs to be done.
We often have researchers and practitioners call or email us inquiring about our bullying and cyberbullying assessments, offline and online surveys, focus group questions, and interview measures. We are happy to share them with others because we must all continue to work together to collect methodologically-sound data and conduct meaningful and rigorous analysis of those data if we are to make headway in understanding and responding to peer harassment issues. I want to point out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently published one of our latest instruments in a freely-available resource entitled: “Measuring Bullying Victimization, Perpetration, and Bystander Experiences: A Compendium of Assessment Tools.”
Feel free to use them as you develop your own assessment program to assess what is going on among the youth you care for. If you tweak or modify any of the measures – or add to or subtract from them – we would really like to know what you did and why you did it. We don’t pretend ours is a definitive way of measuring cyberbullying, but rather a continual work in progress. It has been, and will continue to be, refined as the years go on.
You may learn more about the compendium here, where links to download it in PDF format or order a hard copy are also available. Note that our survey measures begin on page 85 of the PDF file or page 79 of the hard copy. We love research and love discussing it with those similarly inclined, so feel free to comment or email us to further delve into the appropriate conceptualization and operationalization of these items!
There has been a lot of interest in our sexting guide for educators and parents and so I thought it would be a good time to highlight a couple of other findings from that research. Data for this study were collected in the spring of 2010 among a random sample of middle and high school students in a large school district in the southern United States. About 4400 students completed the electronic survey from computer labs within their schools. The sample was evenly split between boys and girls (50.7% male and 49.3% female) and the sample ranged in age from 10 to 18.
With regard to gender and sexting, we found that males were more likely to have received a naked or semi-naked image of someone from their school via cell phone. Specifically, about 16% of males received a naked or semi-naked image compared to about 10% of females (this was statistically significant p<.001). Males were also slightly more likely to have sent a naked or semi-naked image via cell phone (8.2% of males versus 7.2% of females). This too was a statistically significant difference (p=.021).
We all have heard tragic examples of sexting incidents leading to long-term or even permanent consequences for both boys and girls across the United States, and these experiences continue to remind us to work to educate teens about the safe and responsible use of technology. Teens need to understand that if they take a picture of themselves and send it to others or post it online, they lose complete control over how that image is used. They shouldn’t be surprised if it ends up on the front page of the newspaper, or on the desk of their principal, or in front of their parents. While many teens view sexting as a safer way to be intimate with a romantic partner, too often the images are seen by a much wider audience than intended.
As adults who work to educate teens, it is imperative not to panic about this but to understand the motivations of the youth involved and take steps to prevent it from happening in the first place. Our research demonstrates that teens are listening when caring adults talk with them about using technology with wisdom and discretion. The fact that you are reading this blog is evidence that you are a caring adult – now translate that compassion into action. Talk to the adolescents in your life about this issue and make sure that they are aware of the potential costs and consequences.
On Thursday March 10, 2011, the White House convened a conference to address the issue of bullying. First Lady Michelle and President Obama welcomed parents, students, researchers, industry leaders and others to discuss the negative effects of bullying and highlight some of the best-practices and promising approaches in prevention and response. I was honored to be invited to be a part of an expert panel to share with attendees what we have learned through our efforts at the Cyberbullying Research Center. You can see video of the proceedings and my contributions here.
Other researchers on the panel were Sue Swearer (University of Nebraska at Lincoln), Catherine Bradshaw (Johns Hopkins), and George Sugai (University of Connecticut). We spoke about noteworthy efforts to address bullying in general, and I focused on the unique characteristics and strategies associated with cyberbullying. Additionally, Sameer and I – along with these and other researchers – wrote topic-specific white papers for the conference. All of these documents can be found here.
Overall, it was a great experience. I enjoyed being at the White House and seeing many friends and colleagues from around the country who are as passionate as I am about addressing the problem of bullying and peer harassment. A lot of great ideas were shared, and I am hopeful that attendees will continue to work together to develop and implement comprehensive anti-bullying initiatives.
I was also reassured by the number of laypersons in attendance who identified needing additional research as essential. Especially needed are more systematic evaluations of bullying policies, programs, and curricula. If nothing else, I am hopeful that this event raised national and even international awareness about a problem that some still dismiss as lacking import. Try telling that to Tina Meier, Sirdeaner Walker, Kevin Epling, or Kirk and Laura Smalley, all of whom were at the White House because they had lost a child to suicide linked to bullying. We continue to have so much work to do, but I remain encouraged and undaunted.