When Justin Patchin, professor and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, talks to high school students in school assemblies, he asks them to give him an estimate of what percentage of teens have cyberbullied someone.
"Somebody will shout out a number like 60 or 70%. Then I ask them, ok, raise your hand if you think it's higher than that, and the vast majority will raise their hands, and then they'll be shocked when I tell them it's only about 10-12% who've done it in the last 30 days," Dr. Patchin told my ConnectSafely co-director in an interview for CNET and CBS Radio. What this shows us – and I have experienced it in school talks I've given too – is that kids themselves are believing what they hear in the news and from the misinformed authority figures in their lives.
That's not good, because social norms research shows us that perception affects behavior. When people get the facts about a social problem – in this case that only about 20% of teens have ever engaged in cyberbullying and only about 10-12% in the past 30 days, according to a decade's research by the Cyberbullying Research Center – their behavior conforms to their understanding of the facts.
Perception affects behavior
To illustrate: In a study of five New Jersey middle schools, Drs. Wesley Perkins and David Craig at Hobart William Smith Colleges and Jessica M. Perkins at Harvard University found that telling students the truth about bullying at their schools (based on surveys at their own schools) led to "significant reductions in problematic misperceptions of the prevalence of bullying and of peer support for bullying," which in turn brought "simultaneous reductions in personal bullying behaviors and experiences of victimization."
So if we want cyberbullying to go down, we need to be telling our kids and students the facts. Though their own schools' data would probably be more meaningful (so I urge schools to consider doing surveys), at least they should have the national-level data showing that…
* At least 80% of kids have never engaged in cyberbullying, according to Dr. Patchin and his co-director, Prof. Sameer Hinduja.
* Only 15-17% of young people are affected by cyberbullying each year (so 83-85% are not), Dr. Michele Ybarra recently told her keynote audience at the American Psychological Association conference.
* Physical bullying is more prevalent than cyberbullying, Patchin said.
* Physical bullying itself is down (from 22% of US 2-to-17-year-olds to 15% between 2003 and 2008, according to the latest data available - see this).
The burden of proof on kids' shoulders
And because adults haven't been getting accurate information on bullying and cyberbullying for a long period of time, the burden of proof that the vast majority of kids don't engage in cyberbullying is on kids' shoulders. So the next thing Patchin does in his school assemblies is talk about that burden of proof.
"I'll say, look, many adults don't trust teens these days because they assume teens are engaging in really bad behaviors online and off, and it's really their [teens'] responsibility – I tell them it's their responsibility," he said, "to demonstrate to the adults in their lives that they are using technology safely, responsibly, and appropriately and for them to take some ownership over that."
Could we pause for a moment to think about that? This is what we've come to in our society, amid all the negative hype around social media and technology: Our children are not only guilty until proven innocent, but until they figure out how to prove their own innocence, where their use of technology's concerned. I know Patchin personally and contributed a chapter to his latest book, Cyberbullying Prevention and Response: Expert Perspectives, co-edited with Dr. Hinduja, so I know that, a dad himself, Patchin is just leveling with these kids. After arming them with the facts, he tells them that, in many cases, they need to do something about an incident they become aware of – just for their own protection….
"If they see or hear about one of their classmates engaging in inappropriate behaviors, [he tells them] to deal with it, to tell an adult they trust, to somehow get it addressed so it doesn't spill over to them and make it seem like they're engaging in inappropriate behavior," Patchin said. "I think it's very important to have this discussion with teens so they know that the vast majority are doing the right things online." When will this simple truth about kids be widely accepted by the adults who love and work with them?
* "Cyberbullying epidemic? No!"
* "Bullying behaviors are not the norm, but most [youth] perceive that some form of bullying is normative among their peers. This misperception contributes to greater bullying behavior," write Profs. Perkins and Craig at Hobart William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.
* The National Social Norms Institute at University of Virginia describes how the social-norms approach has been applied effectively to substance abuse prevention by adults and teens, traffic safety, tax compliance, and in the "emerging areas" of sexual assault prevention, academic success, and youth pregnancy prevention.
* "Understanding cyberbullying from the inside out"
* "Help for parents dealing with cyberbullying"