Peer Influences and Social Norming

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on June 1, 2012

We are working on a new paper that examines the influence of peers on cyberbullying behavior. We have long known that there is a strong correlation between a youth’s behaviors and those of his or her friends (see Mark Warr’s work, especially “Companions in Crime”). It should come as no surprise, then, that we are seeing similar results in our analysis. Students who reported to us that many of their friends had bullied others (at school, using a computer, and using a cell phone) were significantly more likely to have also reported to us that they too had bullied and cyberbullied others. Specifically, only 4% of the respondents who said none of their friends had cyberbullied others in the previous 6 months reported that they had cyberbullied others in the last 30 days. In contrast, 62% of the students who said “all” or “most” of their friends had cyberbullied others in the previous 6 months reported that they cyberbullied others.

There are many theoretical reasons to help us understand this relationship. For example, it could be that cyberbullying, like just about anything else, is learned behavior. Teens see their friends cyberbully others and not only learn the specific techniques or tactics, but also learn to justify the behaviors (it is just a joke, the target had it coming, it is no big deal, they won’t get caught, etc.). The behaviors could be reinforced further if their peers encourage them through social acceptance or if they are otherwise rewarded (or at least not punished) for what they did. A teen might cyberbully another simply to avoid the possibility that negative attention will be directed back at them if they do not go along with the crowd. It could also be a sort of “birds of a feather flock together” syndrome whereby teens who are cyberbullying others seek each other out to reaffirm the normality of their behaviors. No matter what the precise reason is, it makes sense that kids who participate in cyberbullying might tend to hang out with others who also engage in cyberbullying.

Of course there are some limitations to using a teen’s report of their peer’s behaviors as a measure of the peer’s actual behaviors. Teens could simply be reflecting their own behaviors on others or may think that their friends are behaving in certain ways, when they really aren’t. I see this phenomenon often when speaking with students. I ask them to tell me what percent of students cyberbully others. Their estimates are all uniformly very high (70-80-90%). They are surprised when I tell them that the correct number is actually much lower than that – less than 10% have done it in the previous 30 days. I was at a school this spring that had just collected data from its students about cyberbullying. I quickly skimmed through the handout that the principal gave me with a summary of the results and noticed that 9.5% of the students admitted that they had cyberbullied others. Yet when I asked the students during my presentation, they too estimated the number to be in the 80-90% range.

Correcting the perceptions of youth about these facts is important because if they come to see a certain behavior as normative, they may feel free to engage in that behavior. Or they may feel pressure to “fit in” by doing what they think “everyone” else is doing. Well, the truth is that most students are not cyberbullying others. I tell teens that it is in their best interest to work to reduce the 10% number even more because, like them, the adults in their lives often see the behaviors of the 10% and assume that most young people must be behaving similarly. I mean, there is no shortage of examples in the morning paper or on the nightly news of teens getting into trouble for misusing technology. But these examples represent the exceptions rather than what is most often occurring.

In the end, perceptions can be just as important as reality in terms of influencing behaviors. Which is why we need to work to educate teens and adults alike about what most youth are doing online, using valid and reliable data. (We discuss social norming theory and how it applies to cyberbullying and sexting in our new book). And the data show that teens generally do behave in concert with what they believe their friends are doing. This is even more evidence in support of working to create a climate at school where no form of bullying is tolerated. If students don’t see bullying and cyberbullying happening, or if they see it but the behaviors are immediately condemned by people they care about (their peers and adults), then hopefully they will learn that the norm in their school is to treat each other with respect.

Is Cyberbullying Simply an Expression of Free Speech?

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on April 27, 2010

A colleague of mine recently posed the following questions after listening to my recent interview on Wisconsin Public Radio:

Q:  If a student were bullying someone & claimed they had the right of freedom of speech to say whatever they want, how would you respond?

Q:  If a public official felt they were being bullied & threatened by constituents who claimed right of freedom of speech to say what they wanted, what would you say?

I thought others might be interested in my perspective, so I post my response here. Freedom of speech is an important issue and it is vital that we protect that freedom.  We have the right to say a lot of things in the United States.  But we don’t have the right to threaten, harass, intimidate, or otherwise mistreat someone.  Moreover, even though the Supreme Court famously said that students ‘do not shed their free speech rights at the schoolhouse gate’ (Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969), they also said that the rules are different at schools for educators who have a responsibility to maintain an appropriate and safe learning environment at school (see, for example, Bethel School Dist. v. Fraser, 1986).  So it is easier to restrict student speech at school than student speech away from school.  Of course this creates many problems from a cyberbullying standpoint to the extent that much cyberbullying occurs away from school, but clearly could significantly affect the school.  There are many legal questions that remain unanswered or have been answered differently depending on various lower court rulings.

As you probably know, for many purposes, teachers are considered public officials.  But the key to your second question is the nature of the speech.  Again, Americans have the right to criticize public officials (including students criticizing teachers).  They simply must do so in a responsible and respectful manner.  From a school perspective, if a student criticizes a teacher in a manner that results in a material and substantial disruption at school, then the school has the authority to formally discipline (they always have the right to informally discipline—calling parents, meeting with principal, etc.).  So a student is free to post on his Facebook page that ‘Mr. Smith is a bad teacher.’  But if he does so in a way that is disruptive at school, discipline could result.  Of course irrespective of the ability of the school to intervene, the target of the criticism could sue the bully civilly for harassment or intentional infliction of emotional distress or libel or something else if he chooses.  It is unclear how a judge would respond to this – I imagine it could vary widely depending on a lot of circumstances.

It is not completely clear how these broad principles would apply to a student criticizing (bullying?) another student.  It’s even muddier in the context of cyberbullying.  The same disruption standard would generally apply—at least for a school to discipline the bully, but I’m not aware of any case law that has addressed this question specifically.

So the bottom line is schools are different and treated as such by the law.  That doesn’t mean that everything is cut and dried, though.  What do you think?  Should educators be able to discipline students for their harassing speech at school?  What about away from school?

Schools Have a Responsibility to Proactively Stop Bullying

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on March 12, 2010

A federal jury recently ordered the Hudson Area School District (Michigan) to pay $800,000 in damages to a student who endured years of emotional, physical, and sexual bullying.  Dane Patterson was in middle school when the bullying began as simple name calling and verbal harassment.  It escalated in high school and included being pushed into lockers and at least one incident in 10th grade where he was sexually harassed – which involved “a naked student rubbing against him” in a locker room.

Most states require their schools to have an anti-bullying policy, and Hudson Schools did.  On some occasions when bullying was reported to the school and the perpetrators could be identified, they were punished.  In other cases teachers who witnessed bullying or who were made aware of it failed to follow through with involving school administration.  And according to court records, in one case a geography teacher actually contributed to the problem by making fun of Patterson in front of the entire class by saying: “How does it feel to be hit by a girl?” after he was slapped by a female student when he attempted to stop her from bullying a classmate.  This is almost unbelievable.

This case is a clear message to schools that inaction, or even a simple unwise reaction, is not enough when it comes to dealing with bullies.  Districts need to be proactive in preventing bullying from getting out of control.  It is one thing to have a policy in place prohibiting bullying.  It is so much important for schools to actively enforce it and take additional steps to foster a positive climate in which bullying of all kinds is not tolerated (by staff or students).  Staff need to educate students about appropriate behaviors and take action (informal or formal) against bullies.  Adults who argue that bullying is a normal part of growing up (“kids will be kids”) are contributing to the problem. Students, too, have a role when they see bullying occurring.  Standing by and watching it occur without doing anything is also contributing to a culture where bullying is considered normative behavior and therefore passively condoned and tolerated.  If you are a student and see someone being bullied, please tell an adult in the school that you trust will take appropriate actions (without making things worse for you or the target).  Together, students and staff can work together to create and maintain a positive learning environment free from harassment and abuse.

Social Norms and Cyberbullying Among Students

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on January 27, 2010

As I mentioned in my cyberbullying and sexting comments at the National Crime Prevention Council Circle of Respect event two weeks ago, “social norming” continues to bear relevance for dealing with cyberbullying at schools, and I’d like to flesh it out some more since I am a big fan of the concept.  Basically, youth tend to do what others are doing – largely in order to fit in, as they try to figure out who they are and what they stand for.  As they survey the landscape of trends in behaviors and attitudes, they pick up on what is seemingly accepted, endorsed, and done among their peer group.  This influences them consciously or subconsciously, and they then naturally tend to jump “on board” and act similarly in thought, speech, or action.  For example, if an adolescent high school freshmen is told he can’t hang out with friends after Friday night football games because that’s when “everyone” parties and gets drunk, he might begin to view that behavior as commonplace and therefore acceptable.  He may therefore be more inclined to do the same, since it seems “normal” and “known” behavior.

How does this related to reducing online harassment among elementary, middle, and high school students?  Social norming has to do with modifying the environment, or culture within a school, so that appropriate behaviors are not only encouraged, but perceived widely to be the norm.  That is, schools must work to create a climate in which responsible use of Facebook and instant messaging programs (for example), is “what we do around here” and “just how it is at our school and among our students.”  This can occur by focusing attention on the majority of youth who do utilize computers and cell phones in acceptable ways.  If I told you that one in five teenagers are cyberbullied, you wouldn’t focus on spreading that fact around your student body.  Rather, you would reframe and reconceptualize that research finding, and then create cool and relevant messaging strategies emphasizing that the vast majority of your students are using Internet technologies with integrity, discretion, and wisdom, which would hopefully motivate or induce the remainder to get “on board.”  Ideally, the remainder would desire to fit in, would desire to be like everyone else, and would feel an informal compulsion to stop cyberbullying others and start doing the right thing.  Based on this, you can also see how social norming can be used to address sexting.  You can also see how the shaping of social norms is directly related to modifying the overall school climate or culture.

Spending too much time painting cyberbullying in alarmist colors may encourage more youth to act in similar ways, since those youth will perceive the act as “normal” and that “everyone is doing it.”  Are you doing social norming at your school?  In what ways has it worked?  In what ways has it not been as successful as you would have liked? The Cyberbullying Research Center is actively studying its utility, and will keep you updated on what we find.

Formal comments on cyberbullying and sexting at the NCPC Event

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on January 18, 2010

I greatly enjoyed being a part of a distinguished panel of guests at the National Crime Prevention Council’s Circle of Respect event on Friday, January 15th in Washington, DC.  Speaking alongside Deborah Norville (the anchor of Inside Edition), Chris Moessner (a very experienced researcher and Senior Vice President with Stewart and Partners), Rachel Simmons (author of Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl), and Rosalind Wiseman (author of Queen Bees and Wannabees) was extremely enjoyable and enlightening.

Ann M. Harkins (National Crime Prevention Council’s President and CEO) emceed the event and it really was perfect how each speaker’s contribution led smoothly into the next contribution, and how together they built a comprehensive picture of the relevant issues surrounding bullying, relational aggression, cyberbullying, sexting, and respect.  All of my fellow panelists knew their stuff, and it was refreshing that no one shared cliched statements about Internet safety that everyone already knows.  What was shared was based on critical and original thoughts, and I loved that.

You can view the video of the event in its entirety here, cued up to my talk.  We then opened it up for Questions and Answers from the audience.

The majority of my prepared remarks are below.  We only had a few minutes to cover a great deal – and so I was constrained in all that I would have liked to say.  To note, I also covered the concept of social norming as a solution in reducing the misuse of technology by youth, but I want to save those sentiments for an expanded and exclusive blog entry in the very near future.


Thank you for the opportunity to be on this panel of distinguished guests, and to be able to share with you on the topics of cyberbullying and sexting.  Adolescents have been bullying each other for generations. The latest generation, however, has been able to utilize technology to expand their reach and the extent of their harm. This phenomenon is being called cyberbullying, which we define as: “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”  In general, cyberbullying is bullying carried out using these technologies.

In our research, we have found that:
•    Approximately 15-35% of youth have been victims of cyberbullying
•    About 10-20% of youth admit to cyberbullying others
•    That girls are just as likely, if not more likely, to be involved in cyberbullying as boys
•    That involvement seems to peak in the middle school years (grades 6-8)
•    And that most victims know, or at least think they know, who the cyberbully is.

Our research studies have consistently demonstrated that cyberbullying bears significant real-world consequences.   Specifically, we have found that cyberbullying leads to negative emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration, and fear, which have been linked to delinquency and interpersonal violence among youth.  Cyberbullying has also been tied to low self-esteem and suicidal ideation, problems with academic achievement, substance use and abuse, traditional bullying, carrying a weapon to school, and other forms of school violence.

I have also been asked to speak about the phenomenon of sexting.  We define sexting as “youth rendering themselves vulnerable to emotional, psychological, and physical victimization through the posting and sending of sexually-explicit or sexually-suggestive text, images or video.”

The actual extent of sexting among youth is somewhat unclear when looking across existing studies, and varies depending on how sexting is defined, whether it includes only cell phone use or other forms of online communication, the specific age group studied, and the study’s methodology and sampling.  We have seen estimates as low as 4% and as high as 19% for the proportion of youth who have sent a sexually suggestive picture or video of themselves to someone else.  We have seen estimates as low as 15% and as high as 31% for the proportion of youth who have received a sexually suggestive picture or video from someone else.  Our Cyberbullying Research Center is currently collecting data from a random sample of middle- and high-schoolers this week and next week, and will then be able to share with you a demographic and personality profile of those most likely to participate in sexting, contributive factors that make some youth more susceptible than others, and the range of consequences that can befall victims.

Sexting is largely an adolescent development issue.  Youth seek to figure out who they are and what they stand for during this tenuous period of life, and the process by which this occurs is greatly dependent upon cues from their social environment.  That is, peer perceptions and cultural norms are a large determinant in their own self-worth.  As such, adolescents often seek to present themselves to their peers in a way that attracts positive attention and increases social status.  This then serves to meet their inherent needs for affection, affirmation, and validation.

A teenage girl might hesitate for a moment when asked to send a semi-nude or nude picture of herself to a boyfriend or boy she’s interested in, but if it may improve that boy’s perception of her and consequently her perception of herself – and if it is deemed socially acceptable – she may do it.  This problem is exacerbated by the incessant cultural messages that describe and promote teen sexuality in arguably unhealthy ways – where “hooking up” may be preferred over “dating”, and where having personal privacy boundaries is viewed as “old-school” and “lame.”  My fellow panelists have keenly pointed out that respect – especially self-respect, or the lack thereof – also perpetuates this problem.

A few states are using traditional child pornography statutes to prosecute youth who engage in sexting.  Many argue these actions are outside of the original intentions of legislators who formulated the laws to prosecute adults who prey on youth.  Others believe that such strict interpretation of existing law is necessary in order to prevent tragedies like the Jesse Logan case from Ohio and the Hope Witsell case from Florida, both recent suicides stemming from sexting.

Similarly, school districts are seeking to reduce sexting through formal policies.  Based on my experience working with youth, and having been a youth myself, I don’t believe that formal law and policy is the best way to go – because adolescents tend not to be deterred by rules and laws.  It just doesn’t work as well as we would like to think.  I also don’t want the presence of law and policy to take the place of purposed educational efforts to teach teens about the responsible use of technology.  This sometimes happens when laws or policies are implemented as a way of quickly “dealing” with an issue, without understanding its fundamental causes.

I believe in the need for education and outreach to change prevailing social norms regarding what is acceptable and unacceptable in the minds of youth.  I feel that our prevention and response efforts are going to be less than ideal if we cannot effectively counter what society is hammering into the minds of adolescents.  If the dominant message our kids are hearing is that teen sexuality leads to romantic love, personal fulfillment, popularity, and celebrity status with very little (if any) public or personal fallout, youth will continue to push the proverbial envelope and the line between right and wrong in this area will be increasingly obscured.  I believe that social norming can counter this, and can help youth cultivate a deeper measure of self-respect.  This will serve as an insulating factor against participation in sexting and help them to stand firm when faced with very strong peer and cultural pressures.

I am pleased to be partnering with the National Crime Prevention Council in their far-reaching efforts to address the problems of cyberbullying and sexting, and believe that together we are making a very tangible difference through research, education, and outreach.   Thank you for your time and attention.