40,000+ students polled on their Net use

The Rochester Institute of Technology refers to "a startling new reality of cybercrime," but it's much more about child and adolescent behavior than crime and it's not a new reality. What's unprecedented about this study is the size of its sample, 40,000+ children and teens, the way it breaks bullying and other online behaviors down by grade level, and the detail and number of its questions. Though it's a local and not a nationwide sample (14 school districts in the Rochester area), it's one that can be tracked from year to year – what researchers call a longitudinal study, which has obvious value. The RIT study also offers insights into parents' and educators' understanding of the situation.

Even the study's lead author, RIT Graduate Program Coordinator Sam McQuade, acknowledges this is not new behavior: "What has traditionally happened on the playground has now moved into cyberspace," he says in the study's press release. "The major difference is that children have a sense that they’re anonymous and invincible online. Therefore, they seem to lash out in ways that they may not in person."

Last week I heard Dr. McQuade present his research to the Internet Safety Technical Task Force at Harvard (see my post), unfortunately referring to children more in the language of law enforcement than of child development. But the study does, importantly, help advance society's thinking about children's online safety, which to date has focused almost entirely on youth victimization. With both positive and negative outcomes, young people are participants, if not shapers, of the social Web and therefore key stakeholders in their own well-being and in keeping the use of social media safe and civil.

Here's a sampler of some key findings….

* Grades K-1: "48% of K-1 students interact with people on Web sites" as opposed to various other devices and "48% reported viewing online content that made them feel uncomfortable," with 72% reporting that to a grownup.
* Grades 2-3: "Cyberbullying and victimization begins as early as the 2nd grade for some children" (McQuade told the Task Force that, at this grade level, "cyberbullying" means "someone was mean to me or I was mean to someone"). [See my post "Top 8 workarounds of kid virtual-world users"].
* Grades 4-6: 27% are "completely unsupervised when they go online," and 7% reported being the victim of cyberbullying/threats," most of those "by one of their peers."
* Grades 7-9: "59% of cyberbullying victims said their perpetrators were a friend they know in person…. The four types of middle-school online offenders are generalists, pirates, academic cheaters, and deceiving bullies."
* Grades 10-12: These students spend 15+ hours a week online; "16% have experienced cyberbullying, 17% have been embarrassed online, and 15% have been harassed or stalked online." The "types of offenders in this age group," McQuade told us, are "hackers, fraudsters, pornographers, deceiving bullies, data snoops, pirates, academic cheaters – the majority of kids are engaged in one of these forms of offending."

"I don't know how you can get out in front of this thing," Dr. McQuade told the Task Force, referring to the behaviors the study exposed (and "you" presumably being parents and educators). But I believe parents and educators have the knowledge and tools to help mitigate online peer harassment. How can I say that? Because this is about behavior, not technology. Together and separately at home and school, parents and educators have been dealing with behavior as long as there have been children! We have also known enough to bring in additional expertise when it's needed – that of counselors, social workers, lawyers, and sometimes law enforcement. These days we sometimes need the help of school IT people, tech coordinators, computer forensics specialists, and social-networking customer service people too. But the expertise of caring, engaged parents and educators cannot be discounted, remains at the heart of the solution, and – as we think all this through together with our children and apply what we already know – can go a long way toward getting "getting out in front" of unruly online behavior as much as the offline kind.

"Today’s children are most frequently preying on each other online – and their parents rarely have any idea it's happening," McQuade said. "Preying" is a strong word, but the study's findings could be broken down this way: 1) that online bullying and harassment is the risk that affects a great many more youth than online predation does (it's a little dated, but see "Predators vs. cyberbullies"), 2) that the young people it affects are mainstream youth – anybody's kid – not the more marginalized youth who, research shows, are victimized by "predators" (see "Profile of a teen online victim"), and 3) that the line between the roles of bully and victim is very fine and crossed all the time (see the FL case in which the victim, who was unarguably bullied, had been harassing the kids who bullied her in IM). Sometimes bullying does turn into a crime, but the harassment often starts well before it has escalated into one; an incident is very rarely as clear-cut as the headlines make it out to be.

Related links

* Toward defining "cyberbullying" – followed by a response to and from author and researcher, Prof. Justin Patchin
* The RIT study's executive summary and the press release with a link to the full report in pdf format (alternate URL and pdf doc)
* Earlier in NetFamilyNews: "Why schools, parents need to fight cyberbullying together" and many other NetFamilyNews posts on cyberbullying among these search results.

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