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.
Does Bullying “Cause” Suicide?
The title of Deborah Temkin’s recent Huffington Post article is a simple request: “Stop saying bullying causes suicide.” Her plea is understandable and justified. Sameer and I also cringe when we read the ubiquitous headlines espousing the conventional wisdom proclaiming that “bullying causes suicide.” But what does the research actually say about the nature of this relationship?
Temkin rightly points to a handful of studies that have shown that there is some truth to the assertion that bullying plays a role in some suicides. But it is also true that most teens involved in bullying do not die by suicide. Most people who have spent some time exploring the connection understand that, like any association in the social sciences, it is often much more complicated than simply X causes Y. There are a number of known factors related to suicide that, combined with other situational or enduring life stressors (such as bullying), can predict risk. But even so, most people who experience these do not commit suicide.
I think it is just as important to remember that, as inappropriate as it is to assert that “bullying causes suicide,” it is perhaps equally incorrect to say that “bullying does not cause suicide.” The frank truth is that we really don’t know. I’m not aware of any research that has tested the “bullying causes suicide” hypothesis that has returned null findings. Most research that I am aware of, including the few samples where we include questions about suicidal ideology and attempts, shows a significant, though admittedly modest relationship in the expected direction (namely, that experience with bullying is a factor in suicide). Not the opposite. Of course there are other variables, like the risk factors noted above, that play an important role.
One realization I have come to over the last several months and years is that it is not helpful to tell a grieving family that bullying was not the cause of their child’s death, when in their hearts they know it to be. I am not going to stand in front of them and tell them that they are wrong. Here’s what we do know: most young people who are bullied do not resort to suicide. Some do. Whether it’s causal or correlational or part of a whole constellation of co-occurring challenges in the lives of certain youths, how does that really change what we all are trying to do? We seek to inform the problem of teen suicide with data, and the empirical and anecdotal data that do exist (however limited) lends more credibility to a relationship than not. Please don’t misread this as defending the media for often misrepresenting the nature of the problem, but we shouldn’t overplay our hand either.
So I would offer an addendum to Temkin’s HuffPost appeal. Yes, people should “Stop saying bullying causes suicide.” But we also shouldn’t say that it doesn’t. The honest answer is that we really don’t know a whole lot about why some teens who are bullied consider suicide whereas the vast majority do not. As in many cases we write about on this blog, more research is necessary.
By the way, if you or a friend is contemplating suicide, please contact the Suicide Prevention Hotline at: 1-800-273-TALK.