Small Samples Don’t Speak “Truth”
Our primary mission at the Cyberbullying Research Center is to translate the research we and others do into something that is meaningful and interpretable to teens, parents, educators, and others dedicated to preventing and responding more effectively to cyberbullying. When we first launched this website (10 years ago!), there wasn’t much research being done, and so it was easy to keep up. These days, however, many scholars are putting cyberbullying under the microscope, which is a very good thing. It is important to recognize, though, that not all studies are created equal. In this post I’d like to discuss one particular problem: small sample sizes. And, to be more specific, I am most concerned with the way some media reports portray results from these studies to be definitive.
For illustration purposes, I’d like to highlight two recently-published papers that gained some measure of attention by the media in the last few weeks. I think they attracted this interest, in part, because their findings speak to the conventional wisdom regarding cyberbullying (that is, that traditional bullying is worse than cyberbullying, and that no one really wants to intervene when they see it happen). I’m all for using data to help validate or refute commonly-held beliefs about cyberbullying. Many of the media reports about these papers, however, make broad, seemingly conclusive generalized statements based on the perspectives or experiences of a very small group of students.
Traditional Bullying Is More Harmful than Cyberbullying
The first paper, entitled “Students’ perceptions of their own victimization: A youth voice perspective” and published in the Journal of School Violence, was written by Emma-Kate Corby and five of her Australian colleagues. The authors analyze responses from 156 middle and high school students (114 female, 42 male) who had been victims of both traditional and cyber bullying for the primary purpose of determining which the student’s themselves believed to be worse. A typical headline about this study stated that “Cyberbullying Not as Concerning as Face-to-Face for Kids.” Is this true?
When looking at the results, 59% of the students who had experienced both forms of bullying said that the face-to-face form was worse while 15% said the cyberbullying was worse (26% said it was about the same). So, at least among the majority of students in this particular sample, the face-to-face form of bullying they experienced was worse. Interestingly, we hear quite often from teens who tell us that the online forms of bullying they experienced were worse for them than the at-school forms they had to endure. Which “sample” is more reflective of the experiences of most youth: theirs or ours?
I personally believe that the answer to the question of “which is worse” varies significantly by student and by experience. A blanket statement that “all cyberbullying is less impactful for all students than all forms of face-to-face bullying” is simply apocryphal. While media reports might suggest that, the authors of the paper certainly did not draw this conclusion. Some teens are significantly impacted by online experiences, whereas others are not. It is very person-specific.
I should point out that I know a few of the authors of this paper and genuinely respect their work. As such, I cannot dismiss the findings outright. But I don’t think they would generalize their results as broadly as some media reports have done (even if their findings do get supported by subsequent research).
Few Students Willing to Step up When They Witness Cyberbullying
A second paper, written by Kelly Dillon and Brad Bushman (both from the School of Communication at Ohio State University) was published in Computers in Human Behavior and entitled “Unresponsive or un-noticed?: Cyberbystander intervention in an experimental cyberbullying context.” This study sought to determine if people would be willing to directly intervene if they witnessed mistreatment in an online chat room. The sample comprised 221 university students (154 female, 67 male). It is unclear how students were selected to participate in the study or if they were representative of the population from which they were drawn (presumably, Ohio State students).
The researchers set up a scenario where students were invited to evaluate a chat support platform for online surveys. Once in the chat room, a confederate (one of the researchers) began mistreating a third party in the room. Only 10% of participants who noticed the behavior intervened directly (by messaging the target or aggressor, or by contacting the lead researcher). In addition, about two-thirds of the participants intervened indirectly by rating the chat environment (or the chat monitor) poorly on an exit evaluation. I’m not sure how this latter behavior represents an “intervention,” but I suppose it is meant to be a proxy for some kind of online reporting mechanism.
Most of the media headlines that reported on this study focused on the finding that few students directly intervened. But also consider this headline from the Inquisitr: “Online Trolls, Cyber-Bullying Succeeds Because No One Intervenes Or Stands-Up Against The Bullies, Prove Scientists.” I am particularly perturbed by the use of “No One Intervenes” and “Prove Scientists.” Nothing was “proven” in this study, and it is factually incorrect to say that “no one” intervened. But that was the headline.
We saw similar conclusions drawn from a video that went viral a little over a year ago that seemingly showed university students unwilling to intervene when they saw someone being roughed up right before their eyes. As with research published in academic journals, we need to ask ourselves if the persons depicted in the video were representative of the general population. That is, we need to carefully consider whether the behaviors featured in the clip (and, by extension, in the previous two studies) are typical of what most people would do. The goal of research is to identify that which is not random, but what occurs with some regularity and consistency. Larger samples help to reduce the likelihood that what is observed is extraordinary.
What Can We Learn?
The important take-home message from these studies (and the media reporting of them) is that more research is necessary. Even though it may well turn out that the results from these studies are valid, it is still unwise to draw concrete conclusions from any single study, especially one that involves just a couple hundred respondents. Small samples are fine for exploratory purposes: to pilot an untested measure or explore a new research question. They should be used to guide more comprehensive investigations in the future, not to create policy or generate page-clicks with disingenuous headlines.
We try to base what few definitive conclusions can be drawn on the weight of prevailing research, rather than just one study. For example, when we say that about one out of every four or five students has experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime, we are basing that on the 10 surveys we have done (which have included more than 15,000 respondents), as well as our painstaking review of 73 articles published in peer-reviewed journals over the last decade (that have included nearly 150,000 respondents).
Determining whether a sample is “small” depends more on the size of the population it is intended to represent than the raw number of people surveyed. If a school has 60,000 university students, for instance, and you only study 200 of them, you are examining just one-third of one percent of the population (0.3%). Should we expect that those 200 are substantially similar (based on perceptions and experiences) to all 60,000? A carefully selected (usually randomly-chosen) sample of sufficient size (5-10%?) would allow us to draw some conclusions without having to survey every single person. But if I poll the first 20 students that walk into my building, it is unlikely that their beliefs and behaviors are representative of my university population of 11,000.
Don’t get me wrong, our samples aren’t perfect either. Much social science research is plagued with problems, some of which are unavoidable. We all make concessions when asking certain questions to certain people at certain times. Gaining access to a large and representative sample of students is very difficult. In order to really make progress in growing our knowledgebase related to cyberbullying, though, it is critical for researchers to do the best they can while acknowledging any limitations. And journalists have an obligation to report findings accurately and responsibly.
Chances are, Your Teen has NOT Sexted
Despite a recent headline announcing the opposite, most teens do not sext. Kelly Wallace wrote an article for CNN back in November which was updated and reposted last week. Most of the content of the article is accurate, and I certainly appreciate that she referred to published research and interviewed people who know what they are talking about when it comes to issues involving teens and technology. The primary problem I have with the article, is the headline: “Chances are, your teen has sexted.”
This broad proclamation is based on a study involving a small sample (175) of undergraduate students from one university in the northeastern United States. Respondents were asked in an anonymous online survey whether they had, as minors, sent sexually explicit messages to others. More than half admitted that they had, leading to the conclusion, and corresponding headline, that the majority of teens sext. But is this assertion accurate?
What Exactly is Sexting?
We define sexting as “the sending or receiving of sexually-explicit or sexually-suggestive nude or semi-nude images or video” (generally via a cell phone or other mobile device). Others have characterized it as “…the creating, sharing, and forwarding of sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images by minor teens.” Still others prefer to focus on “youth produced sexual images.” Most commonly, the term is used to describe incidents where teenagers take nude or partially nude (e.g., topless) pictures of themselves and distribute those images to others using their cell phones (although it is also possible to distribute such images via social networking sites and apps, email, instant messaging programs, and video chat). Usually the pictures are sent to significant others, but sometimes teens send them to those with whom they are romantically interested.
How Many Teens are “Doing It”?
What little research that has been done on sexting shows that a minority of youth are participating. We first summarized this research back in 2010. Back then, only a few studies had been done, but among those that had, between 4 and 19% of respondents had admitted to sending a sexually explicit image of themselves to others. In our own study, with data collected in 2010 from a random sample of over 4,000 middle and high school students, we found that 7.7% of students had sent a naked or semi-naked image of themselves to others.
Since our original review, a few new papers have been published. Based on a nationally representative sample of 1,560 students between the ages of 10 and 17, Kimberly Mitchell and her colleagues found that less than 10% of youth “reported appearing in or creating nude or nearly nude images or receiving such images in the past year.” Donald Strassberg and his associates found that less than 20% of the students from one private school in the southwestern United States had ever sent a “sexually explicit picture of themselves” via cell phone. Finally, Jeff Temple and HyeJeong Choi found that 28% of the students surveyed from 5 Houston area public schools had “sent naked pictures of [themselves] to another through text or email.” I wrote about this particular study in detail back in 2012 because the prevalence rate was so much higher than all of the other research we were aware of.
Even the study referred to in the CNN article pegs the prevalence rate of sending explicit images at 28% (the same as the Houston study). While this is on the higher end of the rates reported in the literature, it still means that the vast majority—over 70%—of students have not sent naked images of themselves to others. It’s actually more likely that your teen has had sex the old fashioned way (nearly half have, prior to graduation from high school) than sent a sexually explicit image to someone else.
The grossly misleading headline is based on the percent of university students (about 50%) who acknowledged that they had sent either an explicit image or an explicit text (without an image) as a minor. Restricting the definition of sexting to refer only to those messages that included an image (as most do) brings the number down to 28% (which is probably more valid). There is a big difference between sending a risqué text message and sending a sexually explicit image. It is like asking a sample of students if they have ever robbed a bank at gunpoint or shoplifted from the local market, and then treating those who had done either as the same (both are thieves!). There are very different legal and social consequences for such behaviors. To presume they are comparable, misrepresents the problem.
Teens’ Experiences with Sexting and its Consequences
While I agree with Diana Graber (who is quoted in Wallace’s article for CNN) when she asserts that teens have historically been clueless when it comes to the potential consequences of sexting (such as criminal prosecution), I do believe that they are increasingly listening and learning. More and more teens I communicate with understand the risks, and for those few who choose to engage in sexting, it is a somewhat calculated decision based on the (probably accurately) belief that the risks to them are less for sexting than for engaging in sex. They are not going to get pregnant or catch any one of the many scary sexually-transmitted diseases that has been grilled into their heads in Health Class. And even though there are hazards with sexting, odds are pretty high that they will not get caught or formally punished. Adults who continually preach to youth that they will be are not being genuine, and teens will quickly dismiss their perspective when their personal experiences contradict that which is being threatened. That is, if one out of every four of my friends is doing this, and none has been caught, punished, or prosecuted, what do I have to worry about?
I do disagree, however, with Graber (who runs cyberwise.org, a website with great information to help adults get up to speed about technology issues) when she asserts in the CNN article that sexting is “very normal teenage behavior.” It is not normal, even if it is more common than most parents think. And it does a disservice to teens to tell them that it is. The proliferation of these misperceptions – created and perpetuated by the social group, popular media, and culture – can normalize the behaviors and even attract more participants, eventually leading to the behavior taking on a life of its own. Telling teens that “everyone is doing it” legitimizes the behavior and may erode any apprehensiveness they may have had about doing it.
Have the Talk
It is true that a wider swath of students is involved in these behaviors than was commonly assumed. Sexting isn’t just something done by at-risk teens with care-free sexual attitudes who have nothing to lose. And just because your child probably hasn’t sexted, doesn’t mean this is an issue you can avoid discussing with them. We need to give youth all the information we can to ensure that they will choose not to engage in sexting. Or at least if they decide to do it, they shouldn’t be surprised if something bad happens to them as a result. Explain to them that these images could be exposed to others or even posted online for all to see (even when sent using apps that purport to be private). Tell them that some students do get into very serious legal trouble, because technically, creating, possessing, or distributing explicit images of minors is a crime. Encourage them to explore their sexuality in healthy—and private—ways. Armed with accurate information about the nature and extent of the behavior, and the potential consequences, families can work together to ensure the responsible use of technology within a romantic relationship.
Cyberbullying Activity: Research
By Justin W. Patchin and Sameer Hinduja
Use this Cyberbullying Research activity to help your students better understand the nature and extent of cyberbullying behaviors.
Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2014). A Leader’s Guide to Words Wound. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.
You can also download the complete (and free!) Leader’s Guide to Words Wound by clicking here.
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
Distinguishing Bullying from Other Hurtful Behaviors
In my last post on this blog I wrote about the difficulty in determining when mean behavior crosses the line and becomes bullying behavior. I also discussed the challenge for researchers in trying to quantify the difference. In this post, I’d like to talk about why it is important to establish such a line.
As academics, we love to debate how best to define bullying. Or, at least to call out the limitations in the ways that others do it. I’ve never been one to get too caught up in the definitional debate because I feel that whether a behavior meets someone’s artificially-created criteria for being bullying or not really doesn’t matter all that much. Admittedly, as a researcher I am frustrated by the myriad ways bullying (and especially cyberbullying) is defined, primarily because these discrepancies make comparisons across different studies difficult. But just because something satisfies one scholar’s standards for being classified as bullying is beside the point. We should focus instead on addressing the behavior for what it is. If one student called another student a mean name, or posted an embarrassing picture of another online, or pushed someone in the hallway, it should be addressed. Maybe these incidents are bullying, maybe not. Either way, they need to be dealt with immediately and appropriately.
I’ve begun to shift my thinking a bit when it comes to deliberations about the definition of bullying. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that educators, parents, and other adults who work with youth need to deal with all forms of interpersonal harm when confronted with it. But for a number of reasons, we do need to draw a line in the sand for when a behavior (or series of behaviors) reaches the level of being accurately characterized as bullying. Below I discuss some of these and offer what I believe to be the most important distinguishing features of bullying.
Not All Interpersonal Adolescent Hurtful Behaviors Are Bullying
Many kids say or do mean things to others, but the vast majority of them do not bully. Calling all harmful behaviors bullying discounts the experiences of those who are bullied. As Emily Bazelon (author of Sticks and Stones) has argued, “…when every bad thing that happens to children gets called bullying, we end up with misleading narratives that obscure other distinct forms of harm.” Under most definitions, bullying is much worse than simply being mistreated, pushed, or generally made fun of. To be sure, the difference might simply be in the frequency with which one is targeted. Being pushed in a one-time altercation with a former friend might not be bullying, whereas being pushed by this same person several times over several days, weeks, or months is. Frequency does matter. For example, we were contacted a while back by an adult who recalled his experience of being bullied from over a half century earlier. He wasn’t physically harmed at all, but the names he was incessantly called created psychological scars that never fully healed. Without a doubt, being targeted over and over again, even with relatively mild forms of mistreatment, eventually takes a toll.
Likewise, calling all harmful behaviors bullying may also diminish the seriousness of incidents that are much worse than the term conveys. For example, if a student is attacked on the playground in a one-time incident, this is not bullying. Even if the student is physically beaten so severely that she ends up in the hospital for a week, it’s still not bullying. It is an assault, and should be identified and treated as such. If the assault is linked to other behaviors previously or subsequently perpetrated by the aggressor toward the target, then perhaps it is accurate to define the trajectory of events as bullying. In isolation, a one-time act–no matter how serious–is not bullying.
Implications for Schools
Using bullying to describe all variations of student-on-student harm also has consequences for schools. Recently-passed laws in some states require educators to take certain steps once a behavior is classified as bullying. Well-intentioned or not, these laws force schools into following specific and time-consuming procedures. For example, school administrators in New Jersey are required to initiate a formal investigation within one school day of receiving any report of bullying. The school superintendent must be briefed within two school days. The investigation must be completed within ten school days and include a written report of the incident. The results of the investigation must be reported to the school board at its next meeting. All of this is well and good, and schools would love to direct this much attention to any problems as they arise. The challenge is that they simply have not been given adequate resources to accomplish any of this effectively. It would take an army of administrators to follow through on all of these procedures if every rude, annoying, or even hurtful incident were classified as bullying.
Moreover, schools are increasingly being judged by the number of bullying reports received each year. All reports of bullying in New Jersey schools, for example, must be submitted to the state Department of Education who will then “grade each school for the purpose of assessing its effort” to address these problems. As a result, some school administrators might be encouraged to dismiss actual incidents of bullying–if their numbers start to get too high–for fear of being labeled a “bad school.” My question is, if a school shows a high number of bullying reports/interventions, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I mean, it’s nice to know that students are comfortable reporting the bullying and that schools are taking it seriously by documenting and conducting a formal investigation. But at what point do high numbers cause us to be concerned? In fact, I personally would be more uneasy about a school that reported zero bullying incidents than one that reported quite a few.
Alternatives to Calling Everything Bullying
To counter some of these concerns, some have advocated for abolishing the use of the term bullying altogether and instead suggested that terms such as “harassment” or “drama” are more appropriate. Neither of these alternatives really solves any of the previously-described problems. In many legal circles, for instance, harassment is a specific term reserved to refer to mistreatment that is related to one’s protected status (based on sex, race, color, national origin, disability and actual or perceived sexual orientation). If a heterosexual boy posts an embarrassing picture on Instagram of another heterosexual boy, is it harassment? Not by some legal definitions.
And calling all teen disagreements drama also dilutes the problem. To be sure, there is a lot of background noise in schools these days that could be classified as drama. Being upset with your best friend because of some actual or perceived affront is drama. So is refusing to talk to your sister because she ate the last Pop Tart for breakfast. Most of what teens would call drama would not fall under most definitions of bullying. And nor should it. As danah boyd (author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens) and Alice Marwick have found in their interviews with youth, “teenagers say drama when they want to diminish the importance of something.” Referring to a bullying incident as drama allows the aggressor to neutralize their role in the harm. If everyone does these kinds of things, and if drama is just an everyday part of life for teens, then it isn’t that big of a deal and not worth focusing on.
Bullying is deliberate, repeated harm inflicted by one or more toward another who is unable to effectively defend him or herself. Accidentally hurting someone’s feelings is not bullying. Yes, it sometimes can be difficult to determine the intent of person causing the harm, but repeated hurtful actions, especially after being made aware that what was done was wrong, is a clear indication of intent. Similarly, hurting someone one time in an isolated incident is not bullying, although if there is a threat of repetition, the behavior could qualify. Also, posting something online might be a one-time behavior, but the fact that the content is accessible repeatedly means the victimization is likely to continue. And if the hurtful behaviors do continue, or if a student comes to you to tell you that he is being bullied, then clearly he does not have the ability to defend himself.
Recognizing that not all hurtful behavior is bullying is an important step toward addressing this problem. It becomes maybe slightly more manageable. My criteria offered above are just some issues to consider when trying to differentiate bullying from other behaviors. You might have some ideas of your own, and I encourage you to share them. While we might not come to complete agreement on this, we can work together to prevent and effectively respond to all forms of adolescent interpersonal harm, whether appropriately classified as bullying or not.
Cars Kill More Teens than Computers and Cell Phones Combined
University of New Hampshire sociology professor David Finkelhor recently wrote a short, but thought-provoking, commentary that questions the motives of journalists and scholars in their efforts to explain the nature and extent of risks associated with teen technology use. The impetus for this invited-editorial was an article written by Sonia Livingstone and Peter Smith published in the same journal, which reviews available research on the harms experienced by children who use the Internet. I agree with professor Finkelhor that much of the hype concerning possible online risks have been overstated in the media, but I am not sure if he is correct to include many academics in the same camp.
My primary perturbation is with this point in particular: “The alarmism reflected by so much of the scholarly and journalistic literature appears to make several assumptions that are worthy of more explicit discussion.” (p. 655, emphasis added). Is it really accurate to suggest that “so much” of the scholarly literature is tainted by invalid data and inappropriate interpretations? And what would drive such a practice?
Attention-grabbing Headlines: Separating Fact from Fiction
It is true that too often we see headlines purporting one extreme view or another. These ‘alarmist’ headlines are the ones of which professor Finkelhor is most critical. And in that, we agree. Of course that is not by coincidence: extreme headlines get the attention, the pageviews, and the clickthroughs. If you believe what you read online, cyberbullying is either occurring at “epidemic” levels or is a “low-frequency” problem. But is reality really so strongly slanted one way or another? And furthermore, does cyberbullying have to occur at epidemic levels (whatever that means) for it to warrant our attention?
It is difficult for me to comment on the accuracy of headlines most frequently appearing in mass media publications since I have not done a careful content analysis of these sources. Anecdotally, I can sympathize with professor Finkelhor’s synopsis that many buzzworthy headlines cannot be supported by research. I can, however, speak to the state of the academic literature on cyberbullying specifically.
Our comprehensive review of as much of the cyberbullying scholarship as we could get our hands on shows that it is neither a rare event nor something all teens are forced to deal with on a daily basis. Specifically, we have now looked at 74 articles published in peer-reviewed academic journals. Fifty-two of those included cyberbullying victimization rates and 43 included cyberbullying offending rates. Rates across all of the studies ranged widely, from 2.3% to 72% for victimization and from 1.2% to 44.1% for offending. The average across all of these studies was remarkably similar to the rates that we found in our work (about 21% of teens have been cyberbullied and about 15% admitted to cyberbullying others at some point in their lifetimes). The quality of the methodologies employed by each of the studies examined differs widely, but even when we restricted our analysis to only those studies that used random samples (26), the numbers did not change much at all (21.5% were victims, 17.3% were offenders).
While there are numbers at the extreme ends of the spectrum, the majority of the victimization prevalence rates cluster between about 15% and 30%. These aren’t the kind of numbers that will attract much attention by fear-mongering journalists or reactionary politicians and lawmakers. It’s certainly not good that one out of every 4 or 5 teens has experienced cyberbullying, but that is a far cry from a recent assertion that cyberbullying has “tripled” based on a poll that found that more teens report having witnessed cyberbullying this year compared to last.
To clarify, professor Finkelhor is not focusing his attention on the validity of portrayed prevalence rates per se, but offers a more general critique, perhaps, of implications offered as a result of research. It is one thing to report that 20-25% of teens have experienced cyberbullying (this is evidence-based). It is quite another to extend from this finding that technology is the cause of most peer-harassment (it is most definitely not), or that its solution rests in technology-centric solutions (this is pure conjecture).
Risk of Cyberbullying versus Risks Associated with Cyberbullying
Along those same lines, saying that someone is at risk for being cyberbullied is much different than saying there are risks associated with being cyberbullied. Of course both statements are true, but there is very little that we really know about the nature, extent, and seriousness of the consequences that result from being cyberbullied. Indeed, Livingstone and Smith’s review came to the same conclusion:
“Risks of cyberbullying, contact with strangers, sexual messaging (‘sexting’) and pornography generally affect fewer than one in five adolescents. Prevalence estimates vary according to definition and measurement, but do not appear to be rising substantially with increasing access to mobile and online technologies, possibly because these technologies pose no additional risk to offline behaviour, or because any risks are offset by a commensurate growth in safety awareness and initiatives” (p. 635).
We have a pretty good handle on about how many youth experience various “harms” (like cyberbullying) but know very little about what the consequences of such experiences are. More research is necessary.
If Not This, Then It Must Be This
Some people tend to take the tack that if one extreme interpretation is not supported by evidence, then the other, opposite interpretation, must be true by default. As an example of this, much has been written in an effort to debunk the apparent myth that “bullying causes suicide.” Does bullying cause suicide? Well, to be honest, we really don’t know. Here’s what we do know: The vast majority of youth who experience bullying or cyberbullying do not commit suicide. But some do. Just because there isn’t any solid evidence to empirically confirm the suicide-bullying link, doesn’t mean that a relationship does not exist (see my earlier post on this here).
The logical conclusion based on everything that we do know is that bullying likely does cause some kids to commit suicide. The key question for me is not whether bullying does or doesn’t cause suicide. I’m more interested in learning about the unique life experiences and circumstances (bullying included) that push children in the direction to consider ending their lives. I’m not focused so much on challenging (or proving) one position or the other.
I fear that professor Finkelhor might have stumbled into this reductionism in his essay. He quite rightly questions the validity of three popularly-held assumptions: (1) that technology is dangerous for kids, (2) that technology itself is to blame, and (3) that technology can be used to solve these problems. He summarily rejects these, and offers alternatives: (1) that technology may actually be less dangerous for kids, (2) that technology didn’t create any new problems that didn’t already exist, and (3) that technology-specific solutions aren’t necessary to solve technology-based concerns and problems. He includes specific citations to support his interpretations, but how is this any different from those he criticizes who cherry-pick the most extreme examples in an effort to corroborate their conclusions? What is different about the scholarship he relies on for justification versus the sources cited by those with alternative arguments?
Professor Finkelhor points out that “The mere possibility of plausible deviance amplifying mechanisms does not necessarily mean that the internet is amplifying deviance.” (p. 656). Indeed, and the fact that they have not been uncovered empirically also does not mean that they don’t exist.
Here again, though, I suspect that the truth is somewhere in between these diametrically-opposed positions. Technology can expose some kids to increased risks of certain harms. Technology does create a new set of characteristics that largely didn’t exist in the same way previously (anonymity, disinhibition, virality, permanence, to name a few). Internet education can be useful in teaching some important lessons.
As an illustration, it is without debate that driving a car (or even just riding in one), dramatically increases one’s risk for being in a fatal car accident. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 teens die every single day in car wrecks. This is a very real risk. And yet, we still teach our children how to drive. And some important lessons can be taught even when not inside a car to help make them better drivers (there is a classroom component to driver’s education, and parents can work to instill in their children respect, anger-management, self-control, and respect for the law). But eventually, these lessons need to be applied when behind the wheel. And positive behaviors need to be reinforced and problems are best addressed while in that environment.
The same is true with technology. We can and should teach our children empathy, social-emotional skills, conflict resolution, and mutual respect in whatever context they are in. But we should also work with them to apply those principles in various online environments.
Incentivizing Information Production
Journalists from within the mass media realm are driven by the desire to be seen, to be read, and to be heard. They (and their bosses) want their piece to “go viral” and that objective pressures them into using the most eye-catching headline, often supported—if supported—by the most extreme (and random) statistic that can be found. To hell with the validity or reliability of findings across multiple rigorous studies, if it can somehow support a sensationalistic claim.
Professor Finkelhor is right when he suggests that in some ways, some scholars are in the same boat. They are constantly trying to land that next grant or prestigious journal publication, just like journalists who are pursuing the most comments, clickthroughs, and pageviews for their pieces. But I would argue that the peer-review process in academia works to remove the most egregious exaggerations or misinterpretations. And, at the very least, any decent scholarly article should include a detailed description of the methods employed so that the reader can draw his or her own conclusions based on what was done. This is severely lacking in popular press media writing (though not completely absent). I feel that the bottom line in all of this is that journalists—and especially scholars—have an obligation to express their thoughts in a way that does not move beyond the evidence. Sure, they can take a stand, but they best base that position on solid, consistent evidence.
Our friend Anne Collier, editor over at NetFamilyNews.org, also offered her always-insightful perspective on professor Finkelhor’s article. You can read her thoughts here.
Cyberbullying Research: 2013 Update
It’s been nearly three years since I posted a summary of the current state of cyberbullying research on this blog. That post was inspired by my concern that no researchers were included on a panel that testified to the Committee on Education and Labor’s Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities on the topic of how teens were using and misusing technology. I was troubled then, and remain concerned that quality research about cyberbullying has not been making it into mainstream discussions in the media, even though research in this area has flourished. I want to take a moment to update readers on what we know about cyberbullying based on our research – and that of others who have been exploring this problem.
Over the last decade, Sameer and I have surveyed nearly 15,000 middle and high school students in nine different studies from over 80 different schools throughout the United States. The first two studies were online exploratory samples used to obtain a general understanding of the problem, so the numbers obtained are higher than average and not representative because they only include online teens who volunteered to participate. Our seven most recent studies, however, have all been random samples of known populations in schools so we can be fairly confident in the reliability and validity of the data obtained (click here for more information about the methodology). Overall, about 24% of the students we have surveyed over the last seven studies have told us that they have been cyberbullied at some point in their lifetimes. About 8% said they were cyberbullied in the 30 days preceding the survey. Similarly, about 16% of those who we surveyed admitted that they had cyberbullied others at some point in their lifetimes (about 6% in the most recent 30 days).
Other Published Research
This past summer, Sameer and I (along with one of my undergraduate students) reviewed all of the published research we could find that included prevalence rates for cyberbullying. This work built on our earlier effort to quantitatively summarize published cyberbullying articles which we wrote about in our book Cyberbullying Prevention and Response: Expert Perspectives (see especially chapter 2). In total, we have now reviewed 73 articles published in peer-reviewed academic journals. Fifty-one of those included cyberbullying victimization rates and 42 included cyberbullying offending rates. As you can see from the charts below (click to enlarge), rates across all of the studies ranged widely, from 2.3% to 72% for victimization and from 1.2% to 44.1% for offending. The average across all of these studies was remarkably similar to the rates that we found in our work (about 21% of teens have been cyberbullied and about 15% admitted to cyberbullying others at some point in their lifetimes). Taken as a whole, it seems safe to conclude that about one out of every four teens has experienced cyberbullying, and about one out of every six teens has done it to others.
A couple of other broad generalizations can be made about cyberbullying, based on recent research:
– Adolescent girls are just as likely, if not more likely than boys to experience cyberbullying (as a victim and offender) (Floros et al., 2013; Kowalski et al., 2008; Hinduja & Patchin, 2009; Schneider et al., 2012)
– Cyberbullying is related to low self-esteem, suicidal ideation, anger, frustration, and a variety of other emotional and psychological problems (Brighi et al., 2012; Hinduja & Patchin, 2010; Kowalski & Limber, 2013; Patchin & Hinduja, 2010; Wang, Nansel, & Iannotti, 2011)
– Cyberbullying is related to other issues in the ‘real world’ including school problems, anti-social behavior, substance use, and delinquency (Hinduja & Patchin, 2007; Hinduja & Patchin, 2008; Kowalski & Limber, 2013)
– Traditional bullying is still more common than cyberbullying (Lenhart, 2007; Smith et al., 2008; Wang, Nansel, & Iannotti, 2011)
– 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; Kowalski & Limber, 2013; Ybarra, Diener-West, & Leaf, 2007).
There are only two studies that we are aware of that have explored cyberbullying experiences over time. The first analysis was conducted by our friends at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Examining the three waves of the Youth Internet Safety Survey (2000, 2005, 2010), they find a slight increase in cyberbullying behaviors over that time period (from 6% to 9% to 11%). The second data source is the School Crime Supplement of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). In 2011, 9% of students said they were cyberbullied compared to 6.2% in 2009. Since the NCVS data are weighted to represent the entire population of 12-18 year-olds enrolled in grades 6 through 12, we can estimate that about 2.2 million students experienced cyberbullying in 2011, up from about 1.5 million in 2009. Overall, even though we don’t have a lot of good research to go on, it seems reasonable to presume a slight increase in cyberbullying behaviors over the last few years.
I should acknowledge, however, that a recent poll from MTV and the AP released last month seemed to suggest a decrease in cyberbullying behaviors. I haven’t been able to examine the full methodology of that poll so it is difficult to know exactly what is going on, but I am suspicious since the numbers reported overall (49% cyberbullied in 2013 compared to 56% in 2011) are significantly higher than those in the peer-reviewed published literature that I summarized above.
Snapshot of Some Recent Data
We also just collected data (October, 2013) from about 400 students at one middle school (ages ranged from 11-14) in the Midwest. We haven’t had a chance to fully examine the results, but here are some quick stats:
– 97.5% have been online in the previous 30 days
– 63% have a cell phone
– 45% are on Facebook
– 42% are on Instagram
– 11.5% have been the target of cyberbullying in the previous 30 days (boys: 6.8%; girls: 16.0%)
– 3.9% have cyberbullied others in the previous 30 days (boys: 0.6%; girls: 6.9%)
Where Do We Go From Here
We have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, but more research is still necessary. Public attention to the problem of cyberbullying is at an all-time high. As such, good research is necessary to contribute evidence-based insight into the nature of this problem and its possible solutions. Cyberbullying scholarship must continue to advance by improving methodological standards, including the use of validated measures, representative samples, and, where possible, longitudinal data. Supplementing quantitative findings with those from thoughtful and comprehensive qualitative inquiries will also help to better understand the precise nature of some of these relationships. With these considerations in mind, research will be better able to inform the public conversation about cyberbullying in a way that equips educators, parents, policy makers, and others with the information they need to make a positive difference in the lives of adolescents, online and offline.
Brighi, A., Melotti, G., Guarini, A., Genta, M. L., Ortega, R., Mora-Merchán, J., Smith, P. K. and Thompson, F. (2012). Self-Esteem and Loneliness in Relation to Cyberbullying in Three European Countries, in Cyberbullying in the Global Playground: Research from International Perspectives (eds Q. Li, D. Cross and P. K. Smith), Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK.
Floros, G.D., Simos, K. E., Fisoun, V., Dafouli, E., and Geroukalis, D. (2013). Adolescent online cyberbullying in Greece: The impact of parental online security practices, bonding, and online impulsiveness. Journal of School Health, 83(6), 445-453.
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.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2010). Bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide. Archives of Suicide Research, 14(3), 206-221.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2012). Cyberbullying: Neither an Epidemic Nor a Rarity. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 9(5), 539-543.
Kowalski, R. M. & Limber, S. P. (2013). Psychological, Physical, and Academic Correlates of Cyberbullying and Traditional Bullying. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(1), S13-S20.
Kowalski, R. M., Limber, S. P. & Agatston, P.W. (2008). Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Lenhart, A. (2007). Cyberbullying and Online Teens. Pew Internet & American Life Project, June
Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2010). Cyberbullying and self-esteem. Journal of School Health, 80(12), 614-621.
Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2013). Cyberbullying among Adolescents: Implications for Empirical Research. Journal of Adolescent Health 53(4), 431-432.
Schneider, S.K., O’Donnell, L, Stueve, A., and Coulter, R.W.S. (2012). Cyberbullying, school bullying, and psychological distress: A regional census of high school students. American Journal of Public Health, 102(1), 171-177.
Smith, P. K., Mahdavi, J., Carvalho, M., Fisher, S., Russell, S., and Tippett, N. (2008). Cyberbullying: its nature and impact in secondary school pupils. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 49(4): 376–385.
Wang, J., Nansel, T. R., & Iannotti, R. J. (2011). Cyber Bullying and Traditional Bullying: Differential Association with Depression. Journal of Adolescent Health, 48(4): 415–417.
Ybarra, M., 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.
Ybarra, M. L., Espelage, D. L., & Mitchell, K. J. (2007). The Co-occurrence of Internet Harassment and Unwanted Sexual Solicitation Victimization and Perpetration: Associations with Psychosocial Indicators, Journal of Adolescent Health, 41, S31-S41.
Cyberbullying Myths and Realities
Bullying has long been a concern of youth advocates (e.g., educators, counselors, researchers, policy makers). Recently, cyberbullying (bullying perpetrated through online technology) has dominated the headlines as a major current-day adolescent challenge. This article reviews available empirical research to examine the accuracy of commonly-perpetuated claims about cyberbullying. The analysis revealed several myths about the nature and extent of cyberbullying that are being fueled by media headlines and unsubstantiated public declarations. These myths include that (a) everyone knows what cyberbullying is; (b) cyberbullying is occurring at epidemic levels; (c) cyberbullying causes suicide; (d) cyberbullying occurs more often now than traditional bullying; (e) like traditional bullying, cyberbullying is a rite of passage; (f) cyberbullies are outcasts or just mean kids; and (g) to stop cyberbullying, just turn off your computer or cell phone. These assertions are clarified using data that are currently available so that adults who work with youth will have an accurate understanding of cyberbullying to better assist them in effective prevention and response. Implications for prevention efforts in education in light of these revelations are also discussed and include effective school policies, educating students and stakeholders, the role of peer helper programs, and responsive services (e.g., counseling).
Sabella, R. A., Patchin, J. W., & Hinduja, S. (2013). Cyberbullying myths and realities. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(6), 2703-2711.
Cyberbullying Among Adolescents: Implications for Empirical Research
Research into the causes and consequences of cyberbullying among adolescents has exploded in the past 5 years . However, much of the literature is largely descriptive in nature and/or suffers from methodological limitations associated with accessing and studying young people who are engaged in constantly changing high-tech behaviors. These challenges notwithstanding, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge detailing the social and psychological maladies linked to experiences with cyberbullying. Youth who experience cyberbullying, both as victims and as offenders, report lower self-esteem  and , higher depression and suicidal ideation ,  and , and increased school problems and participation in other problematic offline behaviors ,  and . It is also true that traditional bullying still occurs with more frequency than cyberbullying , although the gap could be narrowing .
Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2013). Cyberbullying among Adolescents: Implications for Empirical Research. Journal of Adolescent Health 53(4), 431-432.