Cyberbullying: What I’ve learned so far

By Anne Collier

A sequel to “Notes from a conference on bullying,” posted last week….

Cyberbullying incidents don’t happen in a vacuum. I’m saying this because I keep running into signs that adults do think they are events that somehow happen in a vacuum or come in out of the blue. However, since Facebook activity is a reflection of users and their lives – and much of the focus of most teens’ lives is school, including the social scene at school – what’s going on in FB, on cellphones, and in other social media is a reflection of all that’s going on at and after school.

Cyberbullying is directly tied into that school-life context. Usually it’s spikes of mean behavior in the ongoing drama of everybody figuring out identity, social norms, pecking order, etc. Sometimes the drama, gossip, etc. spin out of control into an online/offline fight or conflict, but only sometimes. Much more rarely it’s a kid or social group showing real malice that gets repetitious or becomes a pile-on. Usually “everybody” at school (students, that is) knows about it when that happens, but sometimes it may be a kid with some sociopathic tendencies acting in secret. That rare extreme seems to have been more like what Ryan Halligan experienced.

Though it needs to be better defined at a societal level, what I hear people talking about in the news media, in the youth-risk-prevention community, and in my own circles, is a full spectrum of behaviors and motivations – with Ryan’s experience at one end and the negative aspects of everyday school drama at the other. The research spectrum is wide too, ranging from 6% of teens having been cyberbullied to 72%, which indicates that our society doesn’t have a clear fix on the definition of “cyberbullying” and most people thinking it’s basically mean to cruel behavior on digital devices. However, adult “experts” are producing prevention videos that seem to be more about preventing the most egregious cases of social aggression. They seem to think of cyberbullying as the kind of behavior that leads to suicide.

The thing about the egregious cases that have ended in suicide is that they’re all unique – about as individual as the targeted child (most probably because there can be so many causative factors in their lives besides cruel peer behavior). Megan Meier’s experience was entirely different from Phoebe Prince’s or Ryan Halligan’s (see this about Phoebe’s story).

So the real question is: What sort of prevention messaging helps change the context of this wide spectrum of behaviors (see this about context)? In other words, what helps schools create cultures of respect or foster good citizenship online and offline (here’s why citizenship is key)? I’m extremely skeptical that videos produced by “experts” – who see cyberbullying 1) as a general online risk somehow divorced from school life (which itself is very individual in terms of schools and in terms of how individual kids experience school life) and 2) as something that could happen to any kid and lead to suicide – are the way to go. If the messaging or the video have to be generalized, then it would be better to have students talking about their own experiences, ideally ones in which problems were resolved and how they were resolved – along the lines of the “It Gets Better” campaign on YouTube. But even a compelling video campaign isn’t the best tool for the very reason that it’s generalized.

For changing the culture, it would be better to start with a survey specific to the community that wants to improve things – as suggested by Stan Davis of the Youth Voice Project (described above and here). The aim is to start a conversation with students in a particular school where it’s “our project,” something in which all community members have ownership – not something any outside “expert” or one-shot video-screening can accomplish.

Because the real keys to cyberbullying mitigation are specific to the people involved and to their context. If we must generalize, here’s what the research has shown me so far about how to deal with everything from spikes of nastiness in the day-to-day social scene to psychological bullying online and offline:

* For aggressors: changing the culture around them to one that supports civility and respect – encourages targets to get help and encourages bystanders, or observers, of bullying behavior online, offline or both, to support the targeted person. Doing this involves all community members, turning them into stakeholders in their own, each other’s, and the community’s well-being and employs the social-norms approach (see this and this by my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid on social-norms research).
* For targeted kids: fostering resilience, which has to happen at home and school. Being heard, really being listened to by someone supportive, ideally a peer (according to the Youth Voice Project), and certainly in an ongoing way by parents clearly builds resilience (look under “The remove-all-risk monster” here for more on parenting resilient kids).

So what’s your latest thinking on all this? [Email me anytime via anne[at] I love blogging about your views – with permission, of course.]

Related links

* “Cyberbullying and … second changes?”
* My original post on the Megan Meier story when it broke three years ago this month: “Extreme cyberbullying: US case comes to light”

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