Cyberbullying: Clarity needed

One of the most surprising things about this bullying story in the New York Times is that the boy is still at the same school in Fayetteville, Ark., after several years of victimization – and now, in the days of full-fledged online schools providing high school degrees. Distance learning is definitely an option for kids, in addition to switching brick-and-mortar schools, but maybe it's not an option for Billy Wolfe, and I'm editorializing.

What's really important to know is how unusual this tragic story is. There are many, many shades of bullying and cyberbullying, we're learning from solid research, and it's important to understand this so that we in no way discount less extreme experiences of bullying young people have.

"Bullying can happen once a week or once a month; it can be an isolated event or something that happens for years; it can be online, offline, or both. It is a varied behavior and it can be upsetting and have psychological impacts across the board; or not. You do not need to be beat up every day and taunted in every environment to be affected," wrote Dr. Michele Ybarra of Internet Solutions for Kids in a recent email to a few of us online-safety advocates.

Here are some brand-new findings from her latest "Growing Up with Media" study of 11-to-16-year-olds….

"School is overwhelmingly the most common environment that kids 11-16 years of age are bullied in," with almost a third of kids saying they've been bullied there. Eleven percent have been bullied online and 10% "in the community (e.g., on the way to and from school)." Six percent have been bullied by cellphone.

Only very small percentages of young people have been bullied monthly or more often – the most, 5%, at school, and 2% have been bullied that often online. Because being bullied monthly or more often is so uncommon, wrote Dr. Ybarra, "you can see how this particular subset of youth is particularly concerning from a health and development perspective."

In other findings, it's heartening to see that almost two-thirds of 11-to-16-year-olds – 63% – "are not bullied anywhere; 17% report being bullied in one environment, 9% in two environments, 5% in three, 2% in four, and a very concerning 3% report being bullied in all five environments assessed" (school, Internet, cellphone, community, and "other").

Michele also sent an important caveat for everyone concerned about cyberbullying: the need to be very clear on what we're talking about: "The term ‘cyberbullying’ (in my opinion) has been mis- and over-used to describe any sort of unwanted or untoward action that occurs online. The definition of bullying is something that happens repeatedly and over time, and is inclusive of an imbalance of power (this is a common definition in the psychology literature). Some of the things that we have heard about that have happened online fit this definition. Others are more akin to ‘harassment’ or ‘defamation’ or other things."


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