What is Cyberbullying?
“What is Cyberbullying?” is one of the most frequent questions we are asked because many know what it is when it happens, but have trouble wrapping succinct descriptive words around it. Formally, we define it as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices” (from Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying). We developed this definition because it is simple, concise, and reasonably comprehensive and it captures the most important elements. These elements include the following:
- Willful: The behavior has to be deliberate, not accidental.
- Repeated: Bullying reflects a pattern of behavior, not just one isolated incident.
- Harm: The target must perceive that harm was inflicted.
- Computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices: This, of course, is what differentiates cyberbullying from traditional bullying
When we survey students for our research, we define cyberbullying in a way that we feel is more relevant to their everyday experiences. Specifically, we say that “cyberbullying is when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through e-mail or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.” We also ask about specific behaviors that might constitute cyberbullying (such as: hurtful comments, threats, rumors, pictures, or videos posted or circulated online). Depending on the circumstances, these experiences could constitute cyberbullying.
It is important to remember that one instance of mistreatment cannot accurately be equated to bullying, as it must involve harmful behavior of a repetitive nature. Even though many people call one instance of harassment on the playground “bullying,” that really isn’t an accurate characterization. Most research makes a clear distinction between bullying and harassment, differentiating the two based on the former’s recurrent quality. That is not to say that harassment or some other form of hurtful behavior done once is not harmful to the victim—it just isn’t bullying. And while this distinction can be perceived as one of simple semantics or a matter for purely academic debate, we feel it is noteworthy. In fact, we believe bullying is actually harassment taken to the next level.
To be sure, part of the reason bullying can be so emotionally or psychologically damaging is because it is repetitive. Victims actually have a relationship with the bully, albeit a dysfunctional one. For example, targets of bullying often dread going to school because of what the bully might do that day. If the incident occurs/occurred one time, there is no such dynamic. We believe that the nature of cyberbullying makes it very likely that repetitive harm will occur. For example, imagine someone posts a particularly embarrassing picture of another person online in such a way that others can see it, link to it, and even leave public comments in reference to it. While the action of uploading the picture is a one-time behavior, others can view it or otherwise refer to it repeatedly, thereby resulting in recurring humiliation and shame to the target. One person might see it, or millions of people might see it.
Though not explicit in our definition, there is usually an imbalance of power in cyberbullying situations. We chose not to include it as a definitional component, because the type of power being exerted in cyberspace is somewhat amorphous and often shifting. While power in traditional bullying might be physical (stature) or social (wit or popularity), online power may simply stem from proficiency with or the knowledge or possession of some content (information, pictures, or video) that can be used to inflict harm. Anyone with any of these characteristics or possessions within a certain online context has power, which can be wielded through some form of cyberbullying. Indeed, anyone who can utilize technology in a way that allows them to mistreat others is in a position of power—at least at that moment—relative to the target of the attack. In addition, it is can be difficult to measure this differential. As researchers we want to focus on the characteristic that are at least somewhat quantifiable. Suffice it to say that if one is being targeted for harassment in a way that doesn’t allow him to capably respond, he lacks power in that dynamic and it is right to say that he is being bullied.
Also, we must mention that we tend to explicitly focus our attention on adolescents when we refer to cyberbullying. Many people use the term bullying to refer to a wide variety of behaviors between individuals of varying ages. We feel, though, that it is more appropriate to reserve the term bullying, and therefore also cyberbullying, for the kinds of behaviors we describe below as they occur between adolescent peers. While these behaviors often occur among adults as well, it is not usually proper to call the incidents bullying. We acknowledge that there is some debate about this distinction, but we want to be clear who and what we are focusing on in our research.
For more information about the nature and extent of cyberbullying, please see this overview: Cyberbullying Fact Sheet: Identification, Prevention, and Response
The Case for Including Intent in a Definition of Bullying
Last week I presented at the International Bullying Prevention Association’s annual conference in San Diego, CA. This was the second time that I have participated in this event, and both experiences were enjoyable and educational. The attendees (over 700 strong this year) are generally very interested in the work that we are doing at the Cyberbullying Research Center, and the other presenters are uniformly among the best in the business.
The conversations that occur between the formal presentations are just as enlightening and thought-provoking as anything within the scheduled sessions. Talking with attendees and other speakers sparks insights about issues we are working on and allows us to view our research and writings from the perspective of informed others. It was a couple of these conversations that sparked my interest in writing this post.
Right before my first presentation, I got to talking with Stan Davis about how bullying is defined and specifically whether intent was a necessary component. Most definitions include this element, and ours is no different. Specifically, we define cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices.” Like most others, we argue that to be considered bullying, the behavior in question needs to be intentional.
Stan suggested that whether a behavior was deliberate or not was beside the point. If it was hurtful, or if the person doing it should have known that it could have resulted in harm to another, then it is bullying. His position was supported by Elizabeth Englander, another researcher at the conference whose work I very much respect. She added that the problem with including intent as a defining criteria is that it requires teachers in the classroom to get into the heads of students to try to figure out what they were thinking when they did what they did. This is a fair point, though one easy way to determine intent is to see if the behavior was repeated after some initial intervention. If the student is made aware that their behavior is causing harm to another (either by the target, a bystander, or other third party), and yet they continue to behave in the same way, then it’s clearly intentional.
After my presentation, Lori Ernsperger, another speaker who attended my session, came up to me to also discuss whether intent was really a necessary component of bullying. Lori and I chatted briefly about our respective positions on this issue, but because others were waiting to speak with me, we weren’t able to dig into the details enough to clearly explain where each other was coming from. I don’t think that Stan, Elizabeth, and Lori collectively conspired to critique this component of my presentation, so I did feel the need to consider this question further.
That’s why I was happy to receive an email from Lori shortly after the conference with additional information about why she felt it was imperative that we adjust our definition by removing the element of intent. She was particularly concerned with the implications of requiring intent to define something as bullying when it came to behaviors targeting students with disabilities. “Disability harassment,” she argued, “does not consider the intentionality of the bully, only if it is ‘unwelcome conduct.’ When the term ‘willful’ is used for defining bullying it requires schools to have separate policies and definitions for students within protected classes.”
She presented me with a hypothetical incident to consider:
A 16-year-old high school tennis player has a genetic disorder and diabetes. His teammates have been harassing him about going to the nurse’s office and requiring more snack breaks during practice. This goes on for a year. Coaching staff have observed this, but as required by law (FERPA), most school personnel do not know he is a child with a disability. After repeated teasing, he stops going to the nurse and eventually drops out of tennis. This is a clear violation of his civil rights, but the school said it was not “intentional” on the part of the other students (“they were good kids from good homes and did not mean it”) and they did not see this as willful behavior. But is does not matter, it was unwelcome conduct that changed this student’s educational experience. All school personnel should observe and intervene regardless of the intentionality.
First of all, regardless of intent, I agree wholeheartedly with the final sentence in her vignette. School personnel should intervene whether the behavior is defined as bullying or not. One thing is clear, the tennis players were being mean toward their teammate and that should be addressed. But was it bullying? If the students involved in harassing the tennis player for a whole year genuinely didn’t realize that what they were doing was harming the target, then it isn’t bullying. Or, if a reasonable person would have known that the behaviors were causing harm, then it would be intentional and be accurately categorized as bullying. As I have previously written, best friends can say things to each other that appear to be mean or that could unintentionally make someone upset. But are these things really bullying?
As a comparable example, maybe I say something to someone on a repeated basis, just thinking I am being funny, and that person completely ignores or even laughs along with what I am saying. But it turns out that the person is actually very hurt by my comments, yet he never expresses that to me (nor does anyone else). What I am saying may be mean or rude, but it isn’t bullying. Should it be addressed? Of course. Should it stop? Absolutely. If we were students at the same school it would be completely appropriate for a teacher or counselor or whomever to make me aware of the harm that I am causing. At that point, I should definitely apologize and not do it again. If I do repeat it, then that clearly demonstrates willfulness because I was informed of the hurtful nature of what I was saying, but still continued. And that would be bullying.
Lori insisted that the “unwelcome conduct” standard is really what matters. If something is unwelcome, then it is bullying. I don’t think it is that simple. What if I bump into someone in the hallway? Or spill my hot tea on someone’s lap? What if I crash into another vehicle when that person is stopped at a stoplight? These are all clear examples of unwelcome conduct, are they not? Would it be accurate to classify these as bullying—even if they were isolated events and completely accidental? Plus, in order for any of these behaviors to be considered “harassment” in a technical/legal sense, one would have to prove that they were done because of a person’s status (based on race, class, gender, disability, etc.). Harassment is different from bullying. Some bullying behaviors could accurately be classified as harassment, and some harassment could be bullying. But the overlap is not 100%. For example, harassment (again, as formally defined) is always based on a protected status, whereas bullying is not. Harassment could be a singular incident (though often not), whereas bullying is always repetitive (or at least presents an imminent expectation of repetition). I still can’t think of an example of a behavior that should be accurately defined as bullying where intent to cause harm is not present.
The bottom line is that we simply cannot call every harmful or hurtful or mean behavior between teens “bullying.” That dilutes the problem and is confusing to everyone involved. Bullying is a specific and more serious form of interpersonal harm and the term needs to be reserved for behaviors which are repeated and intentional.
That’s what I think. What about you?
Cyberbullying Fact Sheet: Identification, Prevention, and Response
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
This document is a nine-page summary – filled with as much useful information as possible – to equip educators and parents to spot cyberbullying, respond to it appropriately and meaningfully, and to prevent its future occurrence among the children and teenagers they care for. If you only have time to read one fact sheet from the Cyberbullying Research Center to get up-to-speed about the problem and what you can do, read this one.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2014). Cyberbullying fact sheet: Identification, Prevention, and Response. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/Cyberbullying_Identification_Prevention_Response.pdf
Bullies or Best Friends? The Challenge of Interpreting Interpersonal Relationships
The other night I found myself in the proximity of a group of guys who were playing a game together. As they played, they talked: about sports and relationships and game strategy and many other topics that you might imagine would come up among a group of young men. From my eavesdropping it seemed that they were all longtime acquaintances. But it was also evident that there were some major power-dynamics at play within this bunch. One or two members dominated the conversation, while a few others sat back and focused their energy on the game rather than the gossip.
From an outsider’s perspective, much of the interpersonal interactions could easily be characterized as bullying. To be clear, there wasn’t any physical bullying going on, but I witnessed a lot of name calling, degradation, humiliation, and exclusion. Curse words were cast like paint in a Jackson Pollock piece. Bad gameplay was harshly criticized and one or another’s masculinity was regularly challenged based on what was said (or not said) and done (or not done). As a social scientist who explores these behaviors empirically on a daily basis, this represented a Petri dish of the real-world manifestations of bullying that I regularly see in my data.
One of the things I noticed was that while no one was immune from attack, certain targets appeared to be favored. One among the group seemed to be persecuted more than any of the others. He had a way about him that seemed to attract ridicule and reproach. He behaved unconventionally (in the game, and, based on what I overheard, also in the ‘real world’), and was clearly lacking in social competence. I also noticed that the older members of this group seemed to be revered to an extent among the younger ones, and therefore their aggressive behaviors were often mimicked by the younger ones in an attempt to fit in (and perhaps also to avoid becoming browbeaten themselves).
But I have a confession to make. The interactions I have just described can be best characterized as participant observation, rather than purely observational because I was a member of this group and they were all adults. In fact, I use the term “young men” very loosely when referring to those assembled because “thirty-something” me was the youngest of the group. The relationships and interchanges portrayed represented the dynamics not among a group of apathetic adolescents playing a MMORPG like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2, but rather those of mostly white-collar academics in my monthly poker game.
It struck me as I contemplated my terrible cards that night that there is not all that much different between the way we treat our best friends and our worst enemies. Taken out of context, an outside observer would surely have believed that bullying was occurring within our group. The behaviors expressed included all of the classic definitional characteristics: there was repeated, apparently intentional harassment (meanness, cruelty, etc.) carried out by those with perceived or actual power (social status; academic reputation?) against targets in a way that allowed for little defense.
Most of the comments were accompanied by laughter by many in the group, including the one being roasted, which may have masked the maliciousness of the malarkey. But we’ve learned through our conversations with teens who bully that a lot of bullying behaviors are done by young people who think they are just joking around. So I actually found myself wondering, after particularly punishing digs, whether some of the comments made that night might have crossed an imperceptible line. And if this boundary is difficult for adults to identify, how can we expect teens to know when something is taken too far? This is especially challenging because oftentimes targets of ridicule do in fact respond with laughter publicly–in an effort to save face–while privately they are really hurt by what was said.
I also reflected on this as it relates to my research. As academics we like to debate the best way to define bullying. Or at least discuss the limitations of defining it in certain ways. If I were to survey my card-playing colleagues about their experiences with peer abuse by asking them, for example, if anyone has ever “said something mean to them” or “made fun of them in front of others” (two indicators included in the commonly-used Olweus bully/victim questionnaire) they would have to say “yes” just based on how they were treated by their friends that night. But is it accurate to say that they were bullied? Often our research approaches don’t allow us to accurately distinguish between good-natured ribbing and malevolent meanness. As I have argued previously, I don’t believe that bullying can be done unintentionally. Even though someone’s feelings can certainly be hurt without intent, bullying by definition is deliberate. That said, whether hurtful actions qualify as bullying by academic standards or not is beside the point. If we are treating someone in ways that make them uncomfortable, humiliated, excluded, or hurt in any possible way, then we should stop. But how do we know if our comments are being received in that light? And when delivered from a distance, as online comments are, determining impact can be extremely difficult, no matter the age of the sender and receiver.
I doubt that most people would be categorize the behaviors as I have described them as bullying. But are we, and research, able to tell the difference?
Remarks to the Minnesota Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying
Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak to members of the Minnesota Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying. Members were appointed by Governor Mark Dayton with the charge of recommending a course of action to the governor about how best to prevent and respond to bullying. Below were my comments to the group.
Remarks to Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton’s Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying
May 21, 2012
Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D.
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I am happy to be with you today to talk a little bit about my research and life’s work over the last decade. I have to say that I am not accustomed to writing my comments ahead of time and reading them in this way, but for this particular event I thought it was necessary to make sure I was able to convey as much of the important information as concisely as possible in about 10 minutes to set the stage for our discussion. I am used to presenting a 6 hour workshop for educators and I don’t think anyone here would like it if I went that long. In addition, I will make these remarks, with appropriate citations, available to you all for review following our discussion.
My name is Justin Patchin and I am an Associate Professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I have just finished my 8th year on campus. Prior to arriving in Eau Claire, I spent 5 years at Michigan State University, completing my graduate work, teaching classes, and conducting research. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. I grew up in Northern MN, on the Iron Range. My parents still live up there and I frequently visit and spend time in and around the Boundary Waters. Much of my extended family lives here in the metro area.
While I was in college I started working with delinquent youth in residential and then day treatment in Duluth. I was talked into applying for graduate school and when I got accepted to Michigan State, intended to get a Master’s Degree in criminal justice with an emphasis on juvenile delinquency prevention and then come back to MN to be a juvenile probation office. Well, I just enjoyed MSU so much I stuck around long enough for them to give me a PhD.
In my first days on campus, I met up with Sameer Hinduja, who came to Michigan State to study computer crime. We shared a very small office together and one day just started talking about our respective interests: mine in juvenile delinquency, school violence, and bullying; and his in computer crime, identity theft, and other emerging forms of high-tech crime. We started thinking about the ways that youth were using technology to cause harm to one another. We had heard of the term “cyberbullying” but didn’t know what it really involved. This was around 2001 and no one else was really studying the problem either, so we started to. Since then we have conducted 7 formal surveys of over 12,000 students in over 80 schools from around the United States. We have also surveyed parents, educators, and law enforcement officers on their perspectives of this problem. I want to spend a few brief minutes talking about what we have learned over the last 10 years through these studies, focusing specifically on 3 areas: 1) Research; 2) Legislation; and, 3) Prevention.
Now, we have also asked questions about traditional bullying that happens at school, but there are many other competent researchers who have addressed this problem, so I will focus my comments on cyberbullying. We define cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices” (Hinduja & Patchin, 2009). Admittedly, this is an imperfect definition, which is why when we survey others about this problem, we approach it from two perspectives. First, we instruct respondents that “cyberbullying is when someone repeatedly harasses, mistreats, or makes fun of another person online or while using cell phones or other electronic devices.” We then ask if they have experienced this or done this to others in their lifetime or the previous 30 days. Second, we ask them about particular behaviors they have experienced. Specifically, we ask them if they have experienced or done any of the following:
• posted mean or hurtful comments online
• posted a mean or hurtful picture online
• posted a mean or hurtful video online
• created a mean or hurtful web page
• spread rumors online
• threatened to hurt through a cell phone text message
• threatened to hurt online
• pretended to be me someone else and acted in a way that was mean or hurtful
We also spend a great deal of time trying to keep up with the research that others are doing, both in the U.S., and abroad.
What We Know About Cyberbullying
Estimates of the number of teens who have experienced cyberbullying are all over the map. I can point you to a paper published in a peer-reviewed academic journal that says that 72% of students have been cyberbullied while another published study puts the number at less than 5%. The numbers are similarly varied when it comes to the number of students who have cyberbullied others. So how many teens have been involved? Last summer we reviewed all of the published papers on cyberbullying to try to get a handle on this question. These results were published last year in our book Cyberbullying Prevention and Response: Expert Perspectives, which included contributions from a number of knowledgeable sources from around the United States.
As of the summer of 2011, there had been at least forty-two articles on the topic of cyberbullying published in peer-reviewed journals across a wide variety of academic disciplines. Although there are additional articles being published quite regularly and it is likely that we have missed some published works, this review represents the most comprehensive summary of available research findings at the time of its writing.
Among the thirty-five papers published in peer-reviewed journals prior to the summer of 2011 that included cyberbullying victimization rates, figures ranged from 5.5% to 72% with an average of 24.4%. Most of studies (n=22) estimate that anywhere from 6% to 30% of teens have experienced some form of cyberbullying. These findings are consistent with our own research over the last ten years. The percent of youth who responded to our surveys who have experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime ranged from 18.8% to 40.6% in our studies, with an average of 27.3%. Our most recent study based on data collected in the spring of 2010 found that about 21% of youth had been the target of cyberbullying.
Moreover, the number of youth who admit to cyberbullying others at some point in their lives is a bit lower, though quite comparable. Among twenty-seven papers published in peer-reviewed journals that included cyberbullying offending rates, 3% to 44.1% of teens reported cyberbullying others (average of 18%). Across all of our studies, the rates ranged from about 11% to as high as 20% in our most recent study (average 16.8%).
A couple of other broad generalizations can be made about cyberbullying, based on the extant literature:
• Adolescent girls are just as likely, if not more likely than boys to experience cyberbullying (as a victim and offender) (Kowalski et al., 2008; Hinduja & Patchin, 2009)
• Cyberbullying is related to low self-esteem, suicidal ideation, anger, frustration, and a variety of other emotional and psychological problems (Hinduja & Patchin, 2010; Patchin & Hinduja, 2010; Patchin & Hinduja, 2011)
• Cyberbullying is related to other issues in the ‘real world’ including school problems, antisocial behavior, substance use, and delinquency (Hinduja & Patchin, 2007; Hinduja & Patchin, 2008)
• Traditional bullying is still more common than cyberbullying (Lenhart, 2007; Smith et al., 2008)
• Traditional bullying and cyberbullying are closely related: those who are bullied at school are bullied online and those who bully at school bully online (Hinduja & Patchin, 2009; Ybarra, Diener-West, & Leaf, 2007)
Of course more research is necessary. We do not have any good longitudinal research on cyberbullying. We also do not have any good evaluations of programs that target online safety or cyberbullying. The Olweus Prevention program has demonstrated some success with respect to bullying at school, especially internationally, but even that program could benefit from more sophisticated process and outcome evaluations. Such endeavors are costly and take time, but would be well worth the money in the long run.
Forty-nine states now have bullying laws in place or scheduled to be implemented in 2012. Minnesota law requires schools to have a bullying policy that seemingly includes “electronic forms and forms involving Internet use” but does not explicitly refer to cyberbullying or include guidance for responding to off-campus incidents of bullying. Educators are particularly challenged by this last issue; that is, knowing whether or not they can discipline students for cyberbullying when the behaviors largely occur away from school. Thankfully, caselaw provides much guidance on this question.
In the landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) the Supreme Court stated: “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate…” and that only speech or behavior which “materially and substantially interfere(s) with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school” are subject to discipline. Barr v. Lafon (2007) clarified that schools need not wait for a disruption to occur before intervening and that if they can articulate a clear and imminent threat to the order of the school then appropriate action can be taken.
We know from Thomas v. Board of Education, Granville Central School District (1979) that student speech that occurs away from school is generally more protected than the speech that occurs at school, but several recent cases have demonstrated that off campus behaviors and speech are subject to school discipline, if the behavior or speech: (1) substantially or materially disrupts the learning environment at school; (2) interferes with the educational process or school discipline; or (3) threatens or otherwise infringes on the rights of other students (see J.S. v. Bethlehem Area School District, 2000; Wisniewski v. Board of Education of the Weedsport Central School District, 2007; and especially Kowalski v. Berkeley County Schools, 2011).
The key issue that has been addressed in many cases is that the behavior that occurs away from school results in (or has a likelihood of resulting in) a substantial disruption at school (see Layshock v. Hermitage School District and Blue Mountain School District v. J.S. which were both recently reviewed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ). In short, if one student is being harassed or threatened repeatedly by another student, whether online or at school, there is little question that the ability of that student to learn is being disrupted. Moreover, a target’s right “to be secure and to be let alone” (also from Tinker) is being violated. As such, it is important that any state bullying law includes this information so that schools know that they do in fact have the authority to respond. It is also important that schools include this information in their policies because students need to be notified that their off campus conduct is subject to school sanction, within the above-discussed parameters.
Specifically, I urge the legislature to adopt a modified version of New Hampshire’s recently-passed bullying law (HB 1523):
“Schools have the authority and responsibility to apply reasonable and educationally-based discipline, consistent with a pupil’s constitutionally granted privileges, to bullying that: (a) Occurs on, or is delivered to, school property or a school-sponsored activity or event on or off school property; or (b) Occurs off of school property or outside of a school-sponsored activity or event, if the conduct interferes with a pupil’s educational opportunities, creates a hostile environment for that pupil or others, or substantially disrupts the orderly operations of the school or school-sponsored activity or event.”
Similar language has also been adopted in New Jersey and Connecticut law recently. I have modified it minimally to ensure that a student’s constitutionally protected speech is not infringed upon by threatening to discipline a student who is exercising protected speech. As Tinker clearly stated, students have free speech rights, but they are not free to disrupt the learning environment at school (create a disruption, threaten or infringe on the rights of others, etc.).
I also encourage the legislature to provide resources to schools so that they can effectively implement the recommendations and/or requirements included in the law. Schools want to prevent and adequately respond to all forms of bullying and harassment and are simply looking for resources that they can use to assist in such efforts. For instance, legislation should provide staff development and training resources to the Department of Education or other state educational training service providers in order for school officials to learn about the law and about how to prevent and respond to cyberbullying more effectively.
The Importance of School Climate
The benefits of a positive school climate have been identified through much research over the last thirty years. It contributes to more consistent attendance, higher student achievement, and other desirable student outcomes. Though limited, the research done on school climate and traditional bullying also underscores its importance in preventing peer conflict. Existing research has consistently identified an inverse relationship between specific components of school climate and bullying among students (e.g., Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1985; Malecki & Demaray, 2004; Rigby, 1996; Whitney & Smith, 1993). Our recently published book: School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time argues that the impact of a positive climate extend beyond the classroom walls.
For example, our research has shown that students who experienced cyberbullying (both those who were victims and those who admitted to cyberbullying others) perceived a poorer climate at their school than those who had not experienced cyberbullying. Youth were asked whether they “enjoy going to school,” “feel safe at school,” “feel that teachers at their school really try to help them succeed,” and “feel that teachers at their school care about them.” Those who admitted to cyberbullying others or who were the target of cyberbullying were less likely to report feeling safe and cared about at school. The better the climate, the fewer problematic online behaviors were reported by students (cyberbullying and sexting).
We also found that teachers who talk about these issues with their students are making a difference. Even though almost half (46 percent) of students said their teacher never talked to them about being safe on the computer and 69 percent of students said their teacher never talked to them about using a cell phone responsibly, when these conversations happen, they seem to have a positive impact. Students who told us that a teacher had talked to them about being safe on the computer were significantly less likely to report that they had cyberbullied others in the previous 30 days.
Finally students from schools with a better climate were more likely to report that they felt as though their school was likely to respond to incidents of cyberbullying when it was reported to a teacher or other educator at school. In short, educators who do establish a nurturing and caring classroom and school climate will make great strides in preventing a whole host of problematic behaviors, both at school and online.
In conclusion, I would like to advocate for three specific areas of focus as you move forward with your work. First, more research is necessary. We need to know more about all forms of bullying, and especially what works in the areas of prevention and response. Second, we need legislation that is prescriptive, thoughtful, evidence-based, and supported with adequate resources. If legislators are serious about doing something to stop bullying, they must move beyond the rhetoric and provide appropriate resources for schools, parents, law enforcement, and other community institutions to tackle this problem. Third, focusing on improving the climate at school can have a significant impact on a host of problematic behaviors. If students believe that they are cared about at school, and they value those relationships with their teachers, counselors, and administrators, they will in turn refrain from engaging in behaviors that would risk damaging those relationships. That said, bullying and cyberbullying are not just school problems, they are societal problems. Everyone has a role and responsibility to do something, and it can start right here with us today.
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Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2012). Cyberbullying Prevention and Response: Expert Perspectives. New York: Routledge (ISBN: 978-0415892377).
Rigby, K. (1996). Bullying in schools: And what to do about it. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Smith, P. K., Mahdavi, J., Carvalho, M., Fisher, S., Russell, S., & Tippett, N. (2008). Cyberbullying: its nature and impact in secondary school pupils. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(4), 376-385.
Whitney, I., & Smith, P. K. (1993). A survey of the nature and extent of bullying in junior/middle and secondary schools. Educational Research, 31(1), 3-25.
Ybarra, M. L., Diener-West, M., & Leaf, P. J. (2007). Examining the Overlap in Internet Harassment and School Bullying: Implications for School Intervention. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41, S42-S50.
CDC Resource Featuring Our Cyberbullying Survey Items
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!
Several high profile incidents have put cyberbullying at the top of the headlines in recent months. When Sameer and I first started studying this problem over eight years ago, it was rare to see a cyberbullying story in the media, now they are everywhere.
Larry Magid, a technology journalist who contributes to a number of publications, both online and off, commented on cnet yesterday about the potential development of a “cyberbullying panic.” We really appreciate his perspective on issues relating to teens and technology and especially the fact that he always supports his viewpoints and arguments with research.
He is right that the public can sometimes view a particular problem as epidemic in nature simply from one or two high profile incidents (for example, the school shootings of the late 1990s, or more recently the panic over online sexual predators). And many in the media often fan the flames. I basically agree with his thoughts on this and think he is right on in terms of encouraging teens (and adults) to acknowledge that most kids are not engaging in negative or risky or irresponsible behaviors online. Research finds that about 20% of kids have been cyberbullied, or admit to cyberbullying others, at some point in their lifetime (this number varies considerably depending on how one measures cyberbullying). Of course this means that 80% of kids are NOT involved in cyberbullying as an aggressor or target.
Many people ask me if the bullying problem is getting worse with technology. I simply tell them that technology has allowed us to observe the bullying problem more clearly. Kids have always been bullying each other. But technology has brought it to the forefront because we can see exactly what is being done and said. Historically, maybe, much of these bullying experiences would never come to the attention of adults – technology has made the problem more visible, for better *and* worse. This visibility likely contributes to the overall harm caused, but also allows parents, school administers, and others to see it more precisely (and most are shocked, even though they too were once adolescents). I also think that the media attention surrounding these and other high profile incidents over the last year or two (perhaps even the Megan Meier case) has resulted in more students coming forward about their bullying/cyberbullying experiences. Our research over the last five years or so shows that more teens are now telling adults about their experiences with cyberbullying. Now we just need to teach adults how to effectively deal with the problem once they are made aware.
We need to remember that most teens are doing great things online and are largely being responsible (our MySpace research shows this clearly). The high profile examples certainly grab the headlines but represent the exception rather than the rule. Of course, as Larry points out, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the problem. It is hard to see a clear path to prevention and response in the midst of a panic. Good solid research can help us to distill the fact from the fiction, and therefore should be the foundation of any policy and practice. That said, the rare tragedy is often necessary to remind us of why it is so important to keep moving forward with respect to these issues.
Formal comments on cyberbullying and sexting at the NCPC Event
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.
Federal cyberbullying bill proposed…
For those of you who haven’t heard yet, a federal law has been proposed that defines “cyberbullying” and specifies penalties (in the form of fines and up to two years imprisonment) for violators. The bill is formally called the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act (HR 6123), and was introduced jointly by Representatives from Missouri and California. We support the creation of well-informed and thought-out laws that are part of a comprehensive plan to address cyberbullying, and we applaud the fact that politicians are increasingly recognizing and formally responding to the problem of online aggression. However, this specific law is just not going to work. The text of the bill reads:
Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication, with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both. (§ 881)
The bill’s wording seems too broad, and its overbreadth makes me believe that it would be found unconstitutional. IANAL, but intent to cause “substantial emotional distress” through “severe” and “hostile” electronic behaviors will be difficult to prove, especially when it is online. I think courts would (and do) have an easier time identifying and agreeing upon the same behavior when demonstrated offline, in the real world.
On a final note, I like the fact that “cyberbullying” is spelled as one word in the bill.
Cyberbullying Bill in Illinois
Illinois is seemingly about to pass a law to criminalize any instances of cyberbullying that involve a direct threat to another person. Penalties include up to one year in jail for the first instance of harassing someone online, with repeat offenses leading to up to three years imprisonment. Oddly, the bill only mentions web sites or web pages and doesn’t cover other mediums through (or other venues in which) cyberbullying can occur. I figure that more and more of these bills will pop up in various state legislatures over the next year or so. I am concerned, however, that they might cause adults to rest on their laurels now that a law is on the books. There is so much to be done in terms of education, prevention, and extralegal responses. Laws are, and will never be, a panacea.