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.