Cox Communications and the NCMEC recently held a Teen Summit in Washington, and we are pleased to see that the research they conducted revealed the same findings as our own work, as it relates to the use of various technologies by adolescents, experiences with cyberbullying, and the misuse of personal pictures or content. Furthermore, one of the major take-home messages from the Summit was that parents and guardians must exercise due diligence in protecting their children and teenagers. We also underscore the importance of cultivating an open line of communication with your youth, and have created a Cyberbullying Scripts resource that you can download. This document demonstrates how easy it is to broach the subject matter, and provides you with examples and questions to guide you. Definitely let us know what has worked and what has not worked in talking to your kids about cyberbullying and responsible online social networking. It is important for us to identify best practices and then share them with parents, educators, and other professionals who regularly wrestle with this issue.
Findings from a new content analysis of MySpace profiles were released yesterday – something of keen interest to us as we’ve written empirical articles and presented extensively on the use of that social networking site by youth. The study is methodologically sound and well done, overall. The researchers found that over half (54%) of 500 profiles created by self-reported 18-year-olds contained “references” to “risky behaviors” in words and photos, including sexual behaviors (24%), substance use (41%), and violence (14%).
More specifically, they found 37% of profiles owned by 18-year-olds referenced alcohol use, 13% referenced tobacco use, and 10.2% referenced drug use. I find these numbers incredibly high.
In our own research of youth (17 years of age and younger) based on data from the summer of 2007 (the same time the other study was published), we found 13.8% referenced alcohol use, 4.3% referenced tobacco use, and 2.0% referenced marijuana use . We have a paper being published in the near future that will elaborate on these findings – if you want a copy, just let us know.
I can’t imagine that once a person turns 18, they start rapidly modifying their profile to include more of these references to risky behaviors. So, I don’t understand how their numbers are so high.
In our own research, we also found that teens seem to be moving in a direction of restricting access to their information and being more wise about what they are posting online (i.e., less frequently posting references to risky behaviors) – irrespective of any intervention. That is just the general trend.
The lives of these individuals is definitely important, and I agree with the article that MySpace can be used for health promotion since these individuals are displaying risk behaviors on the site. I’m curious, though, whether this is any different from the risk behaviors they talk about in person, out loud, to friends or acquaintances. Young adults often joke about and discuss these matters constantly when they are hanging out – and it’s not clear if they are just words or if they are definitely indicative of actual participation in the behaviors. I have to approach these findings with the same perspective. Furthermore, these individuals are legal adults (18 years of age), and would seemingly feel completely free to joke about and discuss these matters on their profile page because educational initiatives about safe and responsible use of social networking sites have not really targeted adults. Again, the purpose of the article is to point to how MySpace might serve as a venue for promoting positive behaviors among a population. I just want to make sure that consumers of this research do not misinterpret the findings. Adults referencing risky behaviors (such as these) in person or online is to be expected and not out of the ordinary, and not dependent in any way on MySpace or any other social networking site.
I’m going to be in Washington, DC on Wednesday, December 10th and Thursday, December 11th for the Family Online Safety Institute’s annual conference, where I’ll be participating in a formal roundtable to discuss cyberbullying prevention and response and Internet safety issues. I am really looking forward to this, as many top practitioners and authors in this field will be there. It will be excellent to see and catch up with Anne Collier, Larry Magid, Nancy Willard, Michelle Ybarra, Sonia Livingstone, Janis Wolak, and Sam McQuade, and to talk technological strategies and solutions with some of the heavy-hitting corporations in the communications and social media stratosphere. Look me up or set something up with me – I’ll be at the conference hotel in the early evening on the 10th for a reception dinner, and then milling about attending presentations and networking throughout the day before my 4:30pm roundtable on Thursday.
Just a quick cross-cultural thought – this article discusses how approximately 10% of 9th and 10th graders in Australia have been cyberbullied…and the article compares that figure to the 50% or so (????) of American students who have been cyberbullied. The lead researcher and professor stated that their country is about five or so years behind on issues like this…and that this problem will grow in Australia with the increased adoption of high-speed Internet connections in homes.
I personally am not sure that higher broadband speeds available at home are going to markedly enhance the rate of online victimization. I’ve researched intellectual property theft and found a strong correlation of piracy with faster lines allowing higher throughput, but I feel that there are fundamental behavioral, cultural, and societal issues that facilitate higher rates of cyberbullying in certain countries. For example, certain countries in the Far East (e.g., Japan, South Korea) have ridiculously fast broadband (40mbps+) to the home, but cyberbullying is not a severe problem at all because demonstrations of interpersonal aggression and violence online are shunned, shameful, and disdained. Justin and I plan to conduct comparative cross-cultural research on cyberbullying in the near future to further flesh out the relevant issues. For now, I’d be really interested to hear the insight of others on this matter.
As my eyes tend to be super sensitive to statistics and data related to cyberbullying, I was taken aback by the findings from a study mentioned in this recent FoxNews article. It states:
According to Parry Aftab, an Internet security and privacy lawyer and founder of WiredSafety.org, 85 percent of 5,000 middle-school students surveyed said they had been cyberbullied. Only 5 percent of them said they’d tell someone about it.
Parry does good work, and she may be citing someone else’s project, and the writer of the article may be misinterpreting or misquoting someone, but 85% is ridiculously high. In addition, 5% is incredibly low – we consistently find that youth are willing to tell a friend…and a growing number are definitely turning to adults for help.
Finally, the article states that cyberbullying peaks in 4th and 7th grade. I agree that the phenomenon is extremely prevalent among middle schoolers, but I’ve talked to a number of 4th graders across the country and while some kids have experienced very mild forms of it (at that age), it definitely doesn’t peak at 4th grade. What does that even mean, and how does that even make sense?
Anyway, wild outliers tend to color our perceptions of any phenomenon. Statistics like these are only going to lead to knee-jerk reactive responses and moral panic. I don’t think we (or the media) need to convince society of the reality of cyberbullying. As Justin pointed out previously, it is extremely important to understand exactly how cyberbullying is specifically defined, and how data are collected. Otherwise, we will continually have wide variation in stated frequencies of cyberbullying, which will only confuse everyone as to the actual extent and scope of the problem. We know what it is, and we know (generally) how often it occurs among youth. We now need to zero in on exactly what can be done about it.