I greatly enjoyed being a part of a distinguished panel of guests at the National Crime Prevention Council’s Circle of Respect event on Friday, January 15th in Washington, DC. Speaking alongside Deborah Norville (the anchor of Inside Edition), Chris Moessner (a very experienced researcher and Senior Vice President with Stewart and Partners), Rachel Simmons (author of Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl), and Rosalind Wiseman (author of Queen Bees and Wannabees) was extremely enjoyable and enlightening.
Ann M. Harkins (National Crime Prevention Council’s President and CEO) emceed the event and it really was perfect how each speaker’s contribution led smoothly into the next contribution, and how together they built a comprehensive picture of the relevant issues surrounding bullying, relational aggression, cyberbullying, sexting, and respect. All of my fellow panelists knew their stuff, and it was refreshing that no one shared cliched statements about Internet safety that everyone already knows. What was shared was based on critical and original thoughts, and I loved that.
You can view the video of the event in its entirety here, cued up to my talk. We then opened it up for Questions and Answers from the audience.
The majority of my prepared remarks are below. We only had a few minutes to cover a great deal – and so I was constrained in all that I would have liked to say. To note, I also covered the concept of social norming as a solution in reducing the misuse of technology by youth, but I want to save those sentiments for an expanded and exclusive blog entry in the very near future.
Thank you for the opportunity to be on this panel of distinguished guests, and to be able to share with you on the topics of cyberbullying and sexting. Adolescents have been bullying each other for generations. The latest generation, however, has been able to utilize technology to expand their reach and the extent of their harm. This phenomenon is being called cyberbullying, which we define as: “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” In general, cyberbullying is bullying carried out using these technologies.
In our research, we have found that:
• Approximately 15-35% of youth have been victims of cyberbullying
• About 10-20% of youth admit to cyberbullying others
• That girls are just as likely, if not more likely, to be involved in cyberbullying as boys
• That involvement seems to peak in the middle school years (grades 6-8)
• And that most victims know, or at least think they know, who the cyberbully is.
Our research studies have consistently demonstrated that cyberbullying bears significant real-world consequences. Specifically, we have found that cyberbullying leads to negative emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration, and fear, which have been linked to delinquency and interpersonal violence among youth. Cyberbullying has also been tied to low self-esteem and suicidal ideation, problems with academic achievement, substance use and abuse, traditional bullying, carrying a weapon to school, and other forms of school violence.
I have also been asked to speak about the phenomenon of sexting. We define sexting as “youth rendering themselves vulnerable to emotional, psychological, and physical victimization through the posting and sending of sexually-explicit or sexually-suggestive text, images or video.”
The actual extent of sexting among youth is somewhat unclear when looking across existing studies, and varies depending on how sexting is defined, whether it includes only cell phone use or other forms of online communication, the specific age group studied, and the study’s methodology and sampling. We have seen estimates as low as 4% and as high as 19% for the proportion of youth who have sent a sexually suggestive picture or video of themselves to someone else. We have seen estimates as low as 15% and as high as 31% for the proportion of youth who have received a sexually suggestive picture or video from someone else. Our Cyberbullying Research Center is currently collecting data from a random sample of middle- and high-schoolers this week and next week, and will then be able to share with you a demographic and personality profile of those most likely to participate in sexting, contributive factors that make some youth more susceptible than others, and the range of consequences that can befall victims.
Sexting is largely an adolescent development issue. Youth seek to figure out who they are and what they stand for during this tenuous period of life, and the process by which this occurs is greatly dependent upon cues from their social environment. That is, peer perceptions and cultural norms are a large determinant in their own self-worth. As such, adolescents often seek to present themselves to their peers in a way that attracts positive attention and increases social status. This then serves to meet their inherent needs for affection, affirmation, and validation.
A teenage girl might hesitate for a moment when asked to send a semi-nude or nude picture of herself to a boyfriend or boy she’s interested in, but if it may improve that boy’s perception of her and consequently her perception of herself – and if it is deemed socially acceptable – she may do it. This problem is exacerbated by the incessant cultural messages that describe and promote teen sexuality in arguably unhealthy ways – where “hooking up” may be preferred over “dating”, and where having personal privacy boundaries is viewed as “old-school” and “lame.” My fellow panelists have keenly pointed out that respect – especially self-respect, or the lack thereof – also perpetuates this problem.
A few states are using traditional child pornography statutes to prosecute youth who engage in sexting. Many argue these actions are outside of the original intentions of legislators who formulated the laws to prosecute adults who prey on youth. Others believe that such strict interpretation of existing law is necessary in order to prevent tragedies like the Jesse Logan case from Ohio and the Hope Witsell case from Florida, both recent suicides stemming from sexting.
Similarly, school districts are seeking to reduce sexting through formal policies. Based on my experience working with youth, and having been a youth myself, I don’t believe that formal law and policy is the best way to go – because adolescents tend not to be deterred by rules and laws. It just doesn’t work as well as we would like to think. I also don’t want the presence of law and policy to take the place of purposed educational efforts to teach teens about the responsible use of technology. This sometimes happens when laws or policies are implemented as a way of quickly “dealing” with an issue, without understanding its fundamental causes.
I believe in the need for education and outreach to change prevailing social norms regarding what is acceptable and unacceptable in the minds of youth. I feel that our prevention and response efforts are going to be less than ideal if we cannot effectively counter what society is hammering into the minds of adolescents. If the dominant message our kids are hearing is that teen sexuality leads to romantic love, personal fulfillment, popularity, and celebrity status with very little (if any) public or personal fallout, youth will continue to push the proverbial envelope and the line between right and wrong in this area will be increasingly obscured. I believe that social norming can counter this, and can help youth cultivate a deeper measure of self-respect. This will serve as an insulating factor against participation in sexting and help them to stand firm when faced with very strong peer and cultural pressures.
I am pleased to be partnering with the National Crime Prevention Council in their far-reaching efforts to address the problems of cyberbullying and sexting, and believe that together we are making a very tangible difference through research, education, and outreach. Thank you for your time and attention.