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.
Gottfredson, G. D., & Gottfredson, D. G. (1985). Victimization in schools. New York: Plenum Press.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2007). Offline consequences of online victimization: School violence and delinquency. Journal of School Violence, 6(3), 89-112.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2008). Cyberbullying: An exploratory analysis of factors related to offending and victimization. Deviant Behavior, 29(2), 129-156.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2009). Bullying beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications (ISBN: 9781412966894).
Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. W. (2010). Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Suicide. Archives of Suicide Research, 14(3).
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2012). School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kowalski, R. M., Limber, S. P., & Agatston, P. W. (2008). Cyber bullying: Bullying in the digital age. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Lenhart, A. (2007). Cyberbullying and Online Teens. Retrieved June 27, 2007, from http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP%20Cyberbullying%20Memo.pdf
Malecki, C. K., & Demaray, M. K. (2004). The role of social support in the lives of bullies, victims, and bully-victims. In D. L. Espelage & S. M. Swearer (Eds.), Bullying in American schools (pp. 211-225). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2010). Cyberbullying and self-esteem. Journal of School Health, 80(12), 614-621.
Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2011). Traditional and nontraditional bullying among youth: A test of general strain theory. Youth and Society, 43(2), 727-751.
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!
Cyberbullying Fact Sheet: Identification, Prevention, and Response
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
This document is a five-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. (2010). Cyberbullying fact sheet:
Identification, Prevention, and Response. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/Cyberbullying_Identification_Prevention_Response_Fact_Sheet.pdf
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.