Major study of teen online conflict in Canada, insights for all of us

By Anne Collier

Though “cyberbullying” is in the title, the just-released study from Canada’s premier digital and media literacy organization, MediaSmarts, is about far more than that. The study offers a wide range of insights from young people themselves on the full spectrum of negative behaviors that turn up in digital media, including meanness, gossip-spreading, acting out of anger, “drama,” threats and what’s academically defined as bullying (with the elements of repeated cruelty and a power imbalance).

And because of all the nuance it brings out from more than 5,000 students in grades 4-11 – experiences, responses, strategies and views on rules, harm felt and what help adults can provide – the study offers a lot of value to parents, educators and policymakers in many countries.

Notably, MediaSmarts’s researchers report that – though “students often say cyberbullying is less of an issue than adults perceive it to be” – even students “in many cases overestimate how common [online conflict] is.” That’s the term that author Valerie Steeves uses, describing the study as “a portrait of online conflict,” which is much broader than the category of peer victimization called “cyberbullying.”

“Online meanness is often less an attack of a ‘bully’ against a ‘victim’ than it is an ongoing part of the relational conflicts that arise as part of the drama of teen life.” The distinction between online meanness and bullying is important because the latter – repeated aggression that exploits a physical, social or psychological power imbalance –would have even lower numbers associated with it than the numbers associated with online conflict overall.

Here are some key highlights from the report:

  • How much it happens: 23% of Canadian 4th-11th-graders say they’ve “said or done something mean or cruel to someone online” and 37% say something mean or cruel has been done to them online “that made them feel badly.”
  • But not “bullying” per se: “The vast majority of this kind of behaviour involves name calling, but the overall number of students reporting this behaviour – although significant – is still relatively low.”
  • How much it hurts: Though 37% say someone has been mean or cruel to them online, “only 11% say this is sometimes (8%) or often (3%) a problem for them.” Steeves reports that “many students see meanness as a common form of interaction with little perceived harm.”
  • Kinds of negative behaviors: 18% have engaged in name-calling online; 6% have harassed someone in an online game; 5% have spread rumors; 4% have posted an embarrassing photo or video of someone; 3% have made fun of someone’s race, religion or ethnicity and 2% of someone’s sexual orientation; 1% have engaged in sexual harassment, “e.g., said or did something sexual when the person didn’t want them to.”
  • Not only “mean girls: “Contrary to popular conceptions of the ‘mean girl,’ boys are more likely than girls to be mean or cruel online.”
  • Gender differences: More than girls’, boys’ meanness is characterized as “pranking” or “trolling” – “more boys than girls say they engage in online meanness because they are ‘just joking around,’ and boys are more than twice as likely to say that they do it because they are bored…. Boys are more likely than girls to harass someone in an online game, make fun of someone’s race, religion or ethnicity, make fun of someone’s sexual orientation or sexually harass someone”; “girls are more likely … to post an embarrassing photo/video or call someone a name” (there’s no real gender difference concerning spreading rumors).
  • When it levels off: Grade 8 appears to be a turning point; meanness increases through grades 4-8, then stays “relatively stable throughout grades 9-11.”
  • Retaliation a big factor: The second and third most common reasons Canadian students give for being mean online are that someone had been mean to them and someone had been mean to a friend.
  • Threats are rare: Though 31% say someone has threatened them online, most of that 31% say that happens rarely (once a year or less); “only 9% report receiving online threats…once a month or more.”
  • Top 6 strategies for dealing with online meanness. Grades 4-7: 1) ask parent(s) for help, 2) ignore it and hope it goes away, 3) ask another trusted adult, 4) ask a teacher, 5) talk face-to-face with the person and 6) ask friends for help; Grades 8-11: 1) ignore it and hope it’ll go away, 2) talk face-to-face with the person, 3) ask friends for help, 4) ask parent(s) for help, 5) “it wouldn’t bother me, so I’d do nothing” and 6) communicate privately with the person (the 3rd choices of both 4th-7th-graders and 8th-11th-greaders were actually tied with their 2nd choices).
  • Face-to-face preferred: “More students rely on face-to-face confrontation than on private communications over a networked device to deal with conflict.”
  • Far from just bystanders: 65% of students say that when they’ve see someone being mean online, they’ve done something to help the person being picked on.
  • Family rules have impact: 47% of students “have household rules about treating others with respect online,” and having that rule “correlates with lower levels of mean and threatening behavior” (students without one are 59% more likely to be mean and twice as likely to make threats online). As for school, “there is very little correlation between the presence of school rules and whether or not a student has engaged in meanness.”
  • Zero tolerance won’t work: Punitive approaches like “zero tolerance” model power-based approaches rather than the community- and empathy-based ones that this and other studies are calling for. “These findings clearly show that zero-tolerance and one-size-fits-all approaches to dealing with online conflict are not only going to be unsuccessful, but can be actively harmful,” writes Matthew Johnson, MediaSmarts’s director of education in the MediaSmarts blog (emphasis mine). “Instead of a greater emphasis on punishment and criminalization, we should be encouraging empathy in youth and teaching them to avoid the ’empathy traps’ of digital communication, providing them with effective tools for managing their emotions and dealing with online conflict, and promoting awareness of the power of parents to teach their children to treat others with respect.”

By “empathy traps,” Johnson is referring to digital communication forms like texting, where – unlike in Skype, Facetime, Google hangouts, voice chat, etc. – “many of the things that trigger empathy in us – a person’s tone of voice, their body language, and their facial expression – are absent.” Scholars all over North America have been studying how to foster empathy in digital environments that can’t provide voice and visual cues.

The report not only confirms the need for more social-emotional learning for students, it also points to a need for this literacy training for adults, including parents. Yale University’s RULER Approach to teaching SEL requires whole-school-community involvement. So I hope that, if schools do offer SEL training (it’s an academic standard in the state of Illinois), they’ll offer it to the entire community – make train-the-trainer SEL classes for teachers available to parents too, showing families that they’re just as integral to a positive school climate as everybody else. Social-emotional learning will help parents and schools have students’ backs and help improve their academic performance; it will also help us prepare them for future social and professional success.

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