Cyberbullying: A serious problem, but not an epidemic

This is an updated version of post that first appeared on SafeKids.com in 2009. Updated to coincide with CBS News 48 Hours special on bullying.

by Larry Magid

The first things you need to know about cyberbullying are that it’s not an epidemic and it’s not killing our children. Yes, it’s probably one of the more widespread youth risks on the Internet and yes there are some well publicized cases of cyberbullying victims who have committed suicide, but let’s look at this in context.

Bullying has always been a problem among adolescents and, sadly, so has suicide. In the few known cases of suicide after cyberbullying, there are other contributing factors. That’s not to diminish the tragedy or suggest that the cyberbullying didn’t play a role but–as with all online youth risk, we need to look at what else was going on in the child’s life. Even when a suicide or other tragic event doesn’t occur, cyberbullying is often accompanied by a pattern of offline bullying and sometimes there are other issues including long-term depression, problems at home, and self-esteem issues.

Cyberbullying defined

And as for “epidemic,” it depends on how you define cyberbullying.

The most commonly recognized definition of bullying includes repeated, unwanted aggressive behavior over a period of time with an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim. In theory, that also covers cyberbullying, but some have taken a broader approach to cyberbullying to also include single or occasional episodes of a person insulting another person online. Indeed, because of the possibility of it being forwarded, a single episode of online harassment can have long-term consequences. “‘Power’ and ‘repetition’ may be manifested a bit differently online than in traditional bullying, Susan Limber, professor of psychology at Clemson University, said in an interview that appeared in a publication of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. She added, “a student willing to abuse technology can easily wield great power over his or her target just by having the ability to reach a large audience, and often by hiding his or her identity.”

Manifestations of cyberbullying include name calling, sending embarrassing pictures, sharing personal information or secrets without permission, and spreading rumors. It can also include trickery, exclusion, and impersonation.

Not all bullying is the same

Some have a much broader definition of cyberbullying that can include any type of mean or rude comment, even if it’s not particularly hurtful or traumatic.

When talking about bullying and cyberbullying, it’s important to remember that not every incident is equal.  There are horrendous cases where children and terribly hurt but there are many cases (perhaps most) where kids are able to handle it themselves. That’s not to say it’s ever right — there is never an excuse for being mean — but parents and authorities need to avoid jumping to immediate conclusions before understand the severity of an incident. And, of course, different children will react differently to incidents depending on a number of factors including their own physiological makeup and vulnerability.

Numbers don’t show a bullying epidemic

Research from the Cyberbullying Research Center indicates that about one in five teens have been cyberbullied at least once in their lifetimes.  That’s bad, but not an epidemic.  And bullying in general, according to research published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, is actually on the decline, from 22% to 15% between 2003 and 2008.

Partly because there is no single accepted definition of cyberbullying, the extent of the problem is all over the map. I’ve seen some reports claim that up to 85 percent of online youth have experienced cyberbullying, while other studies have put the percentage closer to one-third.  A 2010 study by Cox Communications came up with numbers similar to those from the Cyberbullying Research Center, finding that approximately 19 percent of teens say they’ve been cyberbullied online or via text message and 10 percent say they’ve cyberbullied someone else.

One thing we know about cyberbullying is that it’s often associated with real-world bullying. A UCLA study found that 85 percent of those bullied online were also bullied at school.

Signs of cyberbullying

It’s not always obvious if a child is a victim of cyberbullying, but some possible signs include: suddenly being reluctant to go online or use a cell phone; avoiding a discussion about what they’re doing online; depression, mood swings, change in eating habits; and aloofness or a general disinterest in school and activities. A child closing the browser or turning off the cell phone when a parent walks in the room can be a sign of cyberbullying, though it can also be a sign of other issues including an inappropriate relationship or just insistence on privacy.

Preventing and stopping cyberbullying

There are no silver bullets but at ConnectSafely.org (a site I help operate) we came up with a number of tips including: don’t respond, don’t retaliate; talk to a trusted peer or adult; and save the evidence. We also advise young people to be civil toward others and not to be bullies themselves. Finally, “be a friend, not a bystander.” Don’t forward mean messages and let bullies know that their actions are not cool.

Act, but don’t overreact

If your child is cyberbullied, don’t start by taking away his or her Internet privileges. That’s one reason kids often don’t talk about Net-related problems with parents. Instead, try to get your child to calmly explain what has happened. If possible, talk with the parents of the other kids involved and, if necessary, involve school authorities. If the impact of the bullying spills over to school (as it usually does), the school has a right to intervene.

For more

Cyberbullying Epidemic? No! by Anne Collier

Let’s not create a cyberbullying panic

Cyberbullying 101: Fact vs. Fiction

Is the ‘bullying epidemic’ a media myth?


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