Bystander Intervention in Bullying Incidents: A Misguided Experiment
A video has been making its rounds lately showing two young men engaged in a social experiment of sorts. The video shows one hounding, harassing, pushing, punching, and threatening the other because the target apparently failed to do the “bully’s” homework. The two play out this interaction over and over again directly in front of various people at various locations on a university campus, presumably to see who would intervene, and how. To their surprise, most of the onlookers simply ignore or walk away from the “incident.” They just seem to not want to get involved. The actors are critical of this and actually confront several of them afterwards to try to get an explanation. But, my question is: should we have expected anything different?
Many of those who’ve discussed the video on social media, or posted comments on the YouTube video itself, applaud the efforts of these two for apparently exposing a serious problem: people just don’t care. If people genuinely cared, it is reasoned, then they would intervene when they saw bullying happening and it would stop. But this perspective leaves me shaking my head and saying to myself “if only it were that easy.” I have mixed feelings about this little experiment and its potential consequences, and it seems valuable to discuss them here.
Is This Experience Representative?
One of my concerns about this particular approach is that I don’t feel that the situation depicted is realistic. When it comes to bullying overall, there is a lot that happens that doesn’t look like what we see in the video. In fact, I would argue that this is the least likely of possibilities. What is portrayed is very stereotypical (you’ve got a physically more aggressive dude with a backwards hat pushing around a seemingly weaker and wimpier—and smarter?—target). Sure, some young people are bullied like this, but I doubt this scenario represents the norm. It’s true that bullying frequently happens right in front of us. But most often it is a lot more subtle than what is being portrayed in these scenes. It is unlikely, for example, that two strangers are just going to suddenly appear in front of you in the midst of such a blatant physical altercation like what we see.
Admittedly, there’s not a lot of research out there when it comes to bullying among university students, so it is hard to know exactly how prevalent the problem is and what the typical experience looks like. Even so, I doubt that very much of it looks like this: direct physical bullying perpetrated right in front of a stranger in a common area. I’ve been connected to colleges for over half of my life and I have never seen, nor even heard about, situations like this happening. I don’t question that it does happen, but is it really helpful to use a statistically rare incident as an indicator for general response?
What Would You Do?
It’s so easy to watch a video like this and exclaim with passion and confidence that if you were to confront such a situation you would most definitely do something! If we ask people whether they would intervene if they saw someone who was being mistreated, I imagine many would say that they would. But would they really? I mean, it is very easy to envision heroic intervention in times of chaos or tragedy, but it is wholly another thing to actually do it.
Back in November of 2000, Sameer and I were attending an academic conference in San Francisco. At the completion of one of the day’s presentations, we left the conference center and began our mile or so walk to our hotel on the other side of the city when we came upon two individuals fighting in the street. One was flailing punches while the other had his adversary firmly by the hair. For some reason, I instinctively and immediately stepped in to separate them. They were both complete strangers to me but I jumped right in. I didn’t recall what Sameer did while I was trying to break up the melee, but when we talked about this video and remembered and reflected on the incident in San Francisco, he admitted to me that he just froze and felt paralyzed. In hindsight, my interjection was probably foolish: who knows what I was possibly getting myself into! The whole incident lasted less than a minute, and I seriously question whether I would act similarly if put into the same situation today. I think I would, but a person never really knows until actually faced with the situation.
The Bystander Effect
Some might interpret the failure to act as a function of the “bystander effect.” The theory behind this idea is that oftentimes even good and caring people refuse to take action when confronted with someone in need of help. Perhaps they don’t think it is any of their business, or maybe they think others will step in. Maybe they feel it isn’t their place to intervene and behave differently from the social group around them, which gets them to think “no one else is doing anything, why should I?”
The bystander effect was made famous in the tragic murder of Kitty Genovese, who was 28-years-old when she was stabbed to death outside her home in New York City on March 13, 1964. There is nothing exceptional about a New York City murder (there were 635 other homicides in the city in that year), but what shocked the conscience of most people was that the murder was reported to have happened largely in plain sight (even though it occurred at 2:00am) with over three-dozen witnesses but little intervention by any of the onlookers. According to a newspaper story: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.” Some question the facts as reported in this case (see especially Levitt and Dubner’s Superfreakonomics), but nevertheless, a bystander effect has been well documented in the literature. People just don’t typically leap into action in these kinds of situations.
That said, the bystander effect doesn’t really apply in the cases observed in the video since in most of the situations the bystander was alone, not in a group. The bystander effect usually only applies when a person within a larger group refrains from taking action. In the video, the persons being tested are mostly by themselves. So something else has to be causing the inaction.
I don’t believe that the majority of people failed to act because they were apathetic or uncaring. They were just as likely legitimately afraid for their own safety. Furthermore, we don’t know how many of the people who were leaving the area would have contacted the authorities or taken some other action to resolve the situation once they were in a safe place. I did notice a general theme that most of the bystanders in the video were seemingly mild-mannered and not very physically intimidating (except for one guy that seems to come out of nowhere when he hears the ruckus). Were these particular individuals targeted for this because they were the least likely to respond (especially physically)?
It’s Good to Have Options
In general, I don’t think it is a good idea to compel someone to intervene in a physical bullying incident. If the person feels physically and socially capable, then by all means he or she should. But the truth is that many just don’t. It is true that most who witness bullying do want to do something. So we believe it is crucial to equip teens with a variety of tools they can use should they confront a situation like this.
It is important to remember that, unlike the scenario depicted in the video, most teen bullying happens between, and in view of, people who are known. That is, typically witnesses to bullying either know the one doing the bullying, or the one being targeted, or both. If they are not comfortable stepping in at the moment when it occurs, they still have other options for responding:
- tell an adult that they trust will take appropriate action,
- talk to the one who was being bullied after the fact and offer support,
- anonymously report the incident, and persons involved, to their school,
- report cyberbullying to the website it appears on,
- enlist friends to help resolve the conflict, or
- choose another response that does not place themselves at risk for harm.
Without question, we need to do more to equip and empower teens who witness bullying to do something to help (see Chapter 4 of our new book Words Wound, entitled “Start Standing Up, Not Standing By”) . Expecting that they intervene when they see a physical altercation involving complete strangers, though, might not be the best idea for most young people under most circumstances.
Finally, I am concerned that the popularity of this video may lead to unintended consequences. For example, others may be inclined to pursue similar “experiments” with the hope that their video will go viral. This video has been viewed over 3 million times in just a couple of weeks and teens have been known to do whatever it takes to get noticed. What happens if one of the witnesses intervenes with violence before the performers have a chance to let them know it’s just an act? What if someone has a weapon? Plus, teens may target others for harassment, and – if caught – simply point to their friend in the bushes recording the whole thing, and exclaim “it was only an experiment!” I’m sure some opportunistic tormenter will attempt to use something like this as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card.
I also fear this video might be viewed by some who are being bullied as further confirmation that no one out there really cares about them or is willing to help. While dramatic, maybe it’s even reasonable to conclude that we are all pretty much alone in the world, given the repeated failures of people to intervene on behalf of others, even when they see victimization occur directly in front of them. I am thinking in particular about a teen who is bullied in a more hidden or indirect way, and struggles to explain his or her experiences to a parent or teacher. If a person who directly observes bullying right in front of them doesn’t think it deserves a response, what hope does the teen who suffers in silence have?
Can Someone be an Unintentional Bully?
Defining bullying is a tricky thing. And technology just adds another complicated layer to the whole situation. I mean, we know it when we see it, and at the extreme end it’s easy to identify: the repeated threats, multiple humiliating posts, and numerous hurtful texts most likely qualify. But what about that mildly inappropriate joke directed at no one in particular? Or the post that reads “I’m going to kill you. jk. LOL.”? Everyone seems to have a slightly different perspective when it comes to whether or not to categorize a particular experience as bullying.
Officially, we define cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices.” Researchers like Sameer and I like to sit around for hours discussing the different ways to define and measure something empirically, so we freely admit that ours is an imperfect definition. For example, if I take out my cell phone and start bashing you over the head with it, is it cyberbullying? Well, it is willful, repeated harm using a cell phone. But those aren’t the kinds of behaviors we are talking about. With cyberbullying, we are referring to incidents where someone uses technology, primarily computers or cell phones, to harass, threaten, humiliate, or otherwise hassle someone else repeatedly over time. Also included in our definition is the concept of purposiveness. To be considered bullying, in our opinion, the behavior in question must be “willful,” that is, deliberately or intentionally done or said to cause harm.
Most of the commonly-accepted definitions of bullying include an element of intent. Scandinavian researcher Dan Olweus, who is arguably most responsible for the current academic interest in the topic, defines bullying as “aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power. Most often, it is repeated over time.” The Minnesota Department of Education states that “definitions of bullying vary, but most agree that bullying includes the intent to harm, repetition, and a power imbalance between the student targeted and the student who bullies.” Finally, Stopbullying.gov defines bullying as bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” While this definition doesn’t explicitly include intent, one could interpret “aggressive” to mean that the behavior in question was not unintentional.
In addition, many state bullying laws refer to intentional behaviors. Delaware law characterizes bullying as an “…intentional written, electronic, verbal or physical act.” Louisiana defines cyberbullying as “the transmission of any electronic textual, visual, written, or oral communication with the malicious and willful intent to coerce, abuse, torment, or intimidate a person.” Indeed, intent is a fundamental component of criminal law generally. In order to hold someone criminally responsible, not only must we establish that the person engaged in a wrongful act, but that he or she did so with “mens rea,” that is, a guilty mind. When it comes to law there are always exceptions, and we believe that the vast majority of bullying incidents can and should be handled outside of the formal law. The point is that most academic and legal definitions of bullying include intent. But does that mean the element is necessary?
Parenting advocate Sue Scheff recently wrote about “accidental” bullying and cyberbullying for the Huffington Post. She describes incidents where teens say things to others, usually online, that aren’t intended to be hurtful, but are experienced as such. “Even though it wasn’t your objective, your words can be taken out of context by others when they’re read and regurgitated, amplifying your digital footprint.” This can happen offline as well, of course, but technology certainly does more easily obscure actual intent. Many of us know from experience that it often leads to more frequent misunderstandings as communication occurs without important facial expressions, vocal intonations, or other interpretive behavioral cues that provide color and context to what is conveyed.
Scheff credits Katie Greer for first alerting her to these types of behaviors. In Scheff’s article, Greer explains accidental bullying in this way: “Oftentimes, kids described trying to be nice or positive to one friend or cause via various social networking sites, and unintentionally hurting someone’s feelings, or leaving someone out in the process.” I agree that it is common for teens to say things to classmates or even to their best friends, without malice or intent to cause harm, but yet the comments are misinterpreted or otherwise result in harm. But is this bullying?
The concept of an accidental bully is not new. Internet lawyer Parry Aftab has included the “inadvertent cyberbully” in her taxonomy for years (since at least 2006). “They do it for the fun of it. They may also do it to one of their friends, joking around. But their friend may not recognize that it is another friend or make take it seriously.” According to Aftab, inadvertent cyberbullies “don’t lash out intentionally,” which is curious because she defines cyberbullying as “when a minor uses technology as a weapon to intentionally target and hurt another minor” (emphasis added). Like Greer, Aftab describes a situation where teens do or say something to be funny or even helpful, but it is misinterpreted or, for one reason or another, results in hurt feelings.
Greer offers an example in which the friends of a teen girl set up an online profile on Instagram where people are asked to comment/vote for the prettiest girl among four shown. The idea is to show their friend that she is very pretty. The profile creators stuff the virtual ballot box so that their friend emerges victorious, not realizing that by doing so the other three girls involved in the vote have had their feelings hurt (because, after all, they aren’t the prettiest). Were the less-pretty girls in this example bullied? If the teens who created the site genuinely and honestly did not do so to cause harm to the girls who did not win, then I do not believe it is accurate to classify the incident as bullying.
Of course, the key to this is determining intent. It is possible that the girls responsible in Greer’s example could have intended all along to take particular classmates down a notch by setting it up so they would emerge as losers. Or rig the vote in a way that one specific girl received significantly fewer votes than all of the rest, thereby securing her spot as the “least prettiest.” It would be correct to classify those cases as bullying, though definitely not accidental. But if the girls are sincere and authentic in stating that they really didn’t mean to cause harm to those who were not voted the prettiest, then it isn’t bullying. It should not be ignored, however, and the girls responsible should be informed about the unintended consequences of their actions so that they will refrain from similar behaviors in the future. Hopefully that will be the end of the issue. If not, then subsequent intervention would be necessary.
Context is Important
Because it is impossible to know for certain what was going on in the mind of a teen when he or she behaved in a particular way, it is important to gather as much information as possible with which to determine whether or not the behavior in question could have been intentional. For example, is this the first time the particular student has been accused of bullying? Have there been behavioral problems with the student in the past? Were the students involved previously friends? Was there a falling out? Did anyone else (other students or staff) notice previous problems between the students?
Of course we need to keep in mind that just because a teen has never misbehaved in the past, doesn’t mean they didn’t do so deliberately this time. And former friends often mistreat each other, especially if there was a recent issue that led to the breakup. The problematic behavior itself is only one piece of the puzzle. The more information you are able to gather about the nature of the relationships among all involved, the easier it will be to figure out what happened and why.
Why it Matters
For years I deliberately remained on the sideline when it came to debates like this. For me, whether some behavior was bullying or not was really beside the point. I advocated for identifying and focusing on the specific problematic behavior and addressing it reasonably and appropriately for what it was. Unfortunately, this is no longer an option as some states have passed laws that mandate specific actions when it comes to behaviors defined as bullying.
For example, New Jersey law requires principals to investigate every incident of bullying within one school day, and complete a formal report within 10 days that must be submitted to the superintendent within 2 days of completion. Results of the investigation must be presented to the school board at the next regularly scheduled meeting. Students in Georgia who are found to have bullied others for a third time are sent to an alternative school. Furthermore, labeling a particular behavior as bullying can inflame a situation – especially if the label is being misapplied. So it has become imperative to clearly articulate what is meant by bullying.
I don’t expect to resolve this decades-long definitional debate here today, but do hope to encourage researchers, policymakers, legislators, educators and others who are charged with putting students in particular categories (e.g., “the bully”) to think carefully about the criteria they use to make these decisions. Defining a person’s behavior as bullying, or labeling someone “a bully” can set that person on a particular trajectory, and we best not do it capriciously or haphazardly.
Holding Parents Responsible for Their Child’s Bullying
Without a doubt, parents have a duty to do their part to ensure that their kids do not bully others. They need to regularly remind their kids about the importance of treating others the way they would want to be treated. They should talk about how some things we might do or say to someone that seem funny at the time are actually pretty hurtful. When it comes to preventing cyberbullying, parents need to regularly check in on the online behaviors of their kids. Problematic behaviors need to be addressed with reasonable and appropriate discipline. In general, parents need to instill in their children an ethic that includes respecting others and always acting and interacting with integrity, whether online or off. And they can do that in a caring and authoritative manner that encourages emotional connectedness yet demands respect and accountability. Indeed, research has shown a positive parent-child relationship makes it less likely that youth will engage in bullying behaviors as they do not want to risk damaging the valued bond.
But if parents fail to take these steps and their child bullies others, should the parents be held criminally responsible?
An ordinance approved last month by the Monona, Wisconsin, Common Council allows parents of children who bully to be fined $114. The city appears to be the first in the country to pass such a measure. The Council also amended its ordinances to incorporate existing state criminal statutes that prohibit disorderly conduct, unlawful use of a telephone or computerized communication systems, and harassment. All of this sends a clear message to citizens that harassment in all of its forms is not welcome within the city limits.
Last fall I wrote about a growing movement among municipalities to criminalize cyberbullying locally by enacting ordinances. As occurred in Monona, many times city ordinances simply mirror existing state laws. As I wrote back then, there are a few reasons where this move might make sense. It allows a city attorney to pursue charges against an individual even when the county-level district attorney is unwilling. It also allows for the cases to be handled in a municipal court (which Monona does have–many cities do not), rather than the state circuit court system. This has the added effect (for better or worse) of shielding violators from the public shame of being eternally listed on Wisconsin’s Consolidated Court Automation Program website (CCAP) for all to see.
Parental liability laws hold parents accountable, and financially liable, for the behavior of their children when it is deemed that the parents were negligent in their obligation to provide proper parental care and supervision. In theory, these laws make a lot of sense: the idea is to compel parents to make sure their kids aren’t behaving in a reckless or delinquent manner. School law states that educators can be held liable for damages when they are found to have been deliberately indifferent to harassment that happens at schools. Maybe it makes sense to hold parents to the same standard. Parents who are not adequately “parenting” ought to be punished right along with their kids, right? Well, in practice it is much more complicated than that.
States have long had various laws on the books that can be used to hold adults responsible for the actions of youth (for a detailed history, see this article). In 1903, Colorado was the first state to make it a crime to “contribute to the delinquency of a minor.” California law generally requires parents to “exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection, and control over their children.” Parents who fail in this mandate could be found guilty of a misdemeanor and sentenced to jail. Massachusetts law states that “a parent is under a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent his minor child from inflicting injury, intentionally or negligently, on others.” In fact, some have suggested that parental responsibility laws can be traced back to 1646 when Massachusetts enacted its Stubborn Child Law which noted that parents can be fined if their child is caught stealing. Of course the same law also proclaimed that “stubborn and rebellious” sons who do not obey their parents “shall be put to death.”
A number of years ago I was involved in evaluating a truancy reduction initiative in three elementary schools in Michigan. One element of the program was to hold parents accountable if their elementary-aged children did not attend school. For students younger than 12 whose parents did not cooperate with school officials, a warrant was sought for parental prosecution under the state’s compulsory attendance law. The key phrase here was that the parents were uncooperative. Only 3 parents out of the nearly 300 families involved in the program fell into this category. Most were just looking for help to address a relatively simple problem that contributed to the absenteeism, like providing an alarm clock or transportation to school.
I think the same can be said when it comes to bullying. Most often when parents learn about the bullying behaviors of their children they will take the necessary steps to ensure that such behaviors do not continue. In some cases they just don’t know what to do and with a little guidance they will be fine. (For recommendations on how to respond to cyberbullying, see our suggestions.) In very rare cases, a few parents simply do not recognize the bullying behavior of their children as hurtful, or worse they may even encourage it. Or parents completely ignore what their kids are doing online, even after being made aware of problems. Presumably, these are the types of parents that parental responsibility laws are directed toward.
One problem I see with this approach is that it is also likely to have a result that is opposite of that which was intended. We know that the quality of the parent-child relationship is integral in preventing a whole host of inappropriate behaviors. The concern is that threatening to punish a parent for the behavior of the child may serve to further weaken this relationship. Parent and child are pitted against one another when the child misbehaves: “Because of what you did I have to pay $114!” Furthermore, anyone who has a child of their own or who has worked with youth in a professional capacity (I fall in both camps) knows that even the best-intentioned guardian can run into an obstinate child who refuses to follow any instructions. It would be inappropriate to hold parents responsible in situations where it is clear that the parent is doing everything they can to try to remedy the behavior. These laws are really intended to handle the opposite – when parents are doing very little to respond. And again, I feel like this happens very rarely.
Unfortunately there has not been any evaluation research done to assess the effectiveness of parental liability statutes so we really do not know what kind of effect they will have. Dr. Eve Brank, who is a professor of law and psychology at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, has studied parental responsibility laws in depth and told me “it’s impossible to speak about whether they are a good tool or not. We know that parents certainly play an important role in raising their children, but we do not know the effect of imposing legal sanctions on them when their children are involved in illegal behavior.” Indeed, in the project I referred to earlier that targeted elementary absenteeism in Michigan, we were unable to follow the students long enough to determine if the threat of parental prosecution actually resulted in better attendance. So we simply just don’t know if holding parents criminally or financially responsible for the behavior of their kids will result in reduced bullying.
Critics have argued that this is simply another way to limit free speech and that the parents of outspoken youth will be punished for the protected speech of their kids. If a child speaks up about his or her moral objections to homosexuality, for example, it could be construed as bullying and therefore could invoke punishment for the child and now the parent as well. Even though the Monona ordinance clearly states that it does not apply to any “constitutionally protected activity or speech,” there is admittedly ambiguity when it comes to defining an incident as bullying, especially when it involves contentious subjects. As adults (parents and others), it is our responsibility to teach teens to disagree, and even debate, in a civil manner. So if you disagree with my thoughts here, feel free to sound off. But please keep it respectful–your kids could be watching!
Most Cyberbullies Are Bullies at School
Technology has given students immeasurable opportunities to communicate with friends and collaborate on schoolwork. Of course it also allows those with ill-intent to use high-tech avenues as mediums to be mean. One question that we have been exploring is the extent to which technology has created a whole new class of bullies. Think about it: if I want to be cruel to someone else, but perhaps don’t feel comfortable or confident to do so at school, I may turn to the Internet. This may be because I am extremely comfortable with various social media environments, or because I need time to craft my ingenious hateful statement or brilliant plan to humiliate someone else, or because I would get beat up if I tried to do it in person, or because I would get caught easier at school.
I was recently looking at our 2010 data from over 4,400 middle and high school students who we randomly selected from one large school district to explore this question. What I found was that there were very few students who had reported that they cyberbullied others but who had not bullied others at school. Specifically, 34% of the sample had bullied at school only, 10% had bullied at school and online, but just 1.1% had bullied online only. So most of those who are doing the bullying online are also doing the bullying at school (90% of the cyberbullies are also school bullies).
Traditional and Cyberbullying (N=4,441)
Not a bully – 54.6%
Bully at school only – 34.4%
Bully online only – 1.1%
Bully at school and online – 9.9%
So what does this mean for how we should respond to cyberbullying? First, some educators have argued that if the behavior does not happen at school, there is nothing that they can do. While this perspective is incorrect, as we have pointed out on this blog before, the research shows is there is a high likelihood that a student who is involved in cyberbullying is also involved in bullying at school. Either way, educators should be involved in appropriately and reasonably responding to all bullying, no matter where it happens, if those behaviors inhibit the ability of students to learn and feel safe at school.
Second, the causes of bullying are likely similar irrespective of the environment in which the bullying takes place. That is, whatever causes a student to bully online will undoubtedly also cause them to bully wherever they are. As much as technology has made it easier to connect with others at any time and from just about any place, the trigger or primary opportunity for bullying still appears to come at school. It will be interesting to see if this might change over time. Most people we speak to often assume that cyberbullying is occurring with more frequency than traditional schoolyard bullying. Maybe that is because most of what we hear about in the news are cases of cyberbullying or because technology is so much more widespread among teens than ever before. The reality, however, is that most bullying is still happening at school.
In our sample, 7.5% of students had been cyberbullied compared to 25.8% who had been bullied at school (in the previous 30 days). And we are not the only researchers to have observed this. For example, the School Crime Supplement of the National Crime Victimization Survey added a handful of cyberbullying questions to their survey in 2009 and those data (the most recent available) showed that 28% of students reported being bullied at school while 6% reported being bullied “by electronic means anywhere.” As much as the conventional wisdom would suggest that cyberbullying is occurring with greater frequency than schoolyard bullying, it just isn’t (see also Bullying in a Networked Era: A Literature Review).
These findings do raise some interesting follow-up questions for additional study. For example, are there certain characteristics that are unique to the group of students who specialize in only one form of bullying? Are interventions that focus on reducing bullying generally also effective at reducing cyberbullying (or vice versa)? Are there certain features of schools (or web environments) that make them more or less inviting of different types of bullying? There is always so much more research to do…and we will keep working to do it!
160,000 Students Stay Home from School Every Day Because of Bullying. Really?
At the Cyberbullying Research Center we strive to approach the issue of teen technology use and misuse from a data-informed perspective. Just to be clear, data doesn’t just mean bar charts. Over the last ten years we have formally surveyed over 12,000 middle and high school students, so yes, we have a lot of bar charts. But we have also spoken to thousands of teens in schools all around the United States (and abroad). We get emails and phone calls daily from teens, parents, educators, and others who care about the online behaviors of young people. We have done focused interviews with small groups of students. We also review research articles written by other scholars (both published and unpublished). All of these are valuable sources of data. Taken together, we can start to develop a more comprehensive understanding of what is really going on.
Some data sources are definitely better than others, and we take into consideration the quality of the source and the sophistication of the methodology when interpreting results. Randomly selecting participants from a known sample is much better, for example, than arbitrarily selecting people who happen to be at a particular place and time.
To illustrate, I was recently at a school where a teacher told me that *every* student at her school that she had talked to had “either seen or engaged in sexting.” When pressed, she admitted that this wasn’t a “scientific survey,” just a questioning of a few of the students coming out of the cafeteria one day. So she extrapolated that to estimate that “everyone” at her school was in some way involved in sexting. Of course this is ridiculous. I haven’t seen a sexting study report prevalence rates higher than 31% for receiving a “sext” and most studies put the rate in the teens. In fact the Crimes Against Children Research Center recently reported that only 7.1% of students between the ages of 10 and 17 had received a “sext” (and this was a nationally representative survey – about as good as you can get methodologically).
So whenever I find a particular statistic cited, the first thing I do is attempt to uncover the original source and then review the methodology. What was the sample? How were participants selected to be in that sample? What specific questions were asked? Take once again the issue of sexting. How exactly is “sexting” defined? If you ask teens whether they have *ever* seen a nude or semi-nude image of another person on a cell phone, the number who say yes will likely be very high (if they are being truthful). If you ask them, on the other hand, if they had seen a nude or semi-nude image of another student from their school in the last 30 days, the number will be much lower. This is the question that we asked in our research, but even it can be misinterpreted. I mean, what exactly is “semi-nude?”
This brings me to the original point of this post. I have seen too many times to count the statistic that “over 160,000 students stay home every school day due to bullying.” Here are some representative examples:
I have also seen it twice in the last week in summaries for bullying prevention programs being offered by experts. I even found it in a 1993 article in the New York Times. Interestingly, I see it most commonly cited in news reports and governmental reports. Do a Google search for that statistic and you will see it thousands of times. But where did it come from? It has been attributed to many different sources (ABC News, National Education Association, and several books). Most commonly, it is credited to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At least one CDC report cites a book written in 1998 (Real boys: Rescuing our sons form the myths of boyhood by William Pollack). That book attributes the statistic to the National Association of School Psychologists, but doesn’t provide a specific citation to a specific study or source. So where did it come from? I have put the question to some of the brightest minds in the area of bullying prevention and research and nobody knows. So if anyone out there has a specific study that includes this statistic, I would love to see it.
There is no question that too many students stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying. The exact number is difficult to really know. But it does this field a disservice to mis-cite or simply report statistics without being able to substantiate them. Bullying *is* a serious problem that warrants our attention. But the case can be made for this using reliable and valid statistics, not hyperbole.