The Exaggeration Of The Cyberbullying Problem Is Harming Anti-Bullying Efforts

from the suffering-from-threat-inflation dept

Cyberbullying continues to be the topic du jour, especially for school administrators and legislators, both of which feel something needs to be done, even if they both have nothing in the form of hard data showing the threat matches the perception.

The result is bad policies and worse laws aimed at fighting an exaggerated problem. How exaggerated is it? Well, that depends on who you ask. As Larry Magid at HuffPo points out, the numbers tend to rise if there’s a product or service in play.

I got a call recently from a woman who works for a company that makes an app designed to “keep kids safe” by enabling parents to monitor their texts and social media activities. The pitch included some dire statistics such as “70 percent of kids are cyberbullied” and — like other companies that make parental-control software — I was also told that it helps protect kids from strangers who would do them harm.

Actual studies point to much lower numbers, although there’s no solid consensus.

The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that 6 percent of students in grades 6-12 experienced cyberbullying. The Centers for Disease Control found in 2011 that 16.2 percent of students had been bullied via email, chat rooms, instant messaging, websites or texting — compared to 20.1 percent who had been bullied on school property (traditional bullying) — during the 12 months prior to the survey. The Cyberbullying Research Center reports that “on average, about 24 percent of the students who have been a part of our last six studies have said they have been the victim of cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime.”

Dan Olweus, who the editor of the European Journal of Development Psychology referred to as the “father of bullying research” wrote a 2012 article for that journal where he said that “claims about cyberbullying made in the media and elsewhere are greatly exaggerated and have little empirical scientific support.” Based on a three-year survey of more than 440,000 U.S. children (between 3rd and 12th grade), 4.5 percent of kids had been cyberbullied compared to 17.6 percent from that same sample who had experienced traditional bullying. An even more interesting statistic from that study is that only 2.8 percent of kids had bullied others.

Because cyberbullying isn’t precisely defined, variations are to be expected. But even the most expansive definitions fail to return the scary numbers quoted by those pushing software, policies and legislation.

i-Safe, “the leader in Internet safety education,” compiled these cyberbullying numbers back in 2004 (and hasn’t updated them in nearly a decade).

42% of kids have been bullied while online. 1 in 4 have had it happen more than once.
35% of kids have been threatened online. Nearly 1 in 5 have had it happen more than once.
21% of kids have received mean or threatening e-mail or other messages.
58% of kids admit someone has said mean or hurtful things to them online. More than 4 out of 10 say it has happened more than once.
53% of kids admit having said something mean or hurtful to another person online. More than 1 in 3 have done it more than once.
58% have not told their parents or an adult about something mean or hurtful that happened to them online.

The most surprising thing about these numbers is that the “mean or hurtful” stat isn’t closer to 100%. Kids, due to their inherent lack of a developed world view, say “mean or hurtful” things all the time. Trying to portray this as “evidence” of widespread bullying is disingenuous. i-Safe may be a non-profit, but it still sells subscriptions to instructional software through its website. i-Safe has a vested interest in portraying bullying as worse than it actually is.

safetyNETkids, which also sells videos and curriculum, has this stat (among others) on its website:

Around half of teens have been the victims of cyber bullying

This startling “fact” is quoted all over the internet and is supposedly pulled from a Hartford County Examiner article. Unfortunately, that stat shows up nowhere in the referenced article and the study itself was performed not by the Examiner, but by the National Crime Prevention Council, home of McGruff the Crime Dog. The actual “stat” quoted by the Examiner says simply, “over 40% of all teenagers with Internet access have reported being bullied online.” At some point, someone decided “over 40%” meant “around half,” which sounds much more epidemic.

The actual number contained in the NCPC’s report is 43%, closer to 40% than “almost half.” How did this study manage to come up with a higher percentage than the others Magid quotes? By applying some very loose definitions, much like i-Safe above.

Most commonly, bullying is thought of as a pervasive, consistent activity, not a one-time event. Dan Olweus, “father of bullying research,” defines bullying as “aggressive behavior that is intentional and that invoices an imbalance of power. Most often, it is repeated over time.” Recent studies like those performed by the NCPC and deployed by i-Safe have upped the number of incidents by weakening the term. While someone might feel “bullied” by a one-off interaction, defining every singular experience as “bullying” dilutes the meaning, leading to the punishment of non-bullies and diverting resources from dealing with real problems.

There are a lot of reasons why exaggerating is bad. For one thing, it causes parents to worry unnecessarily. Of course parents are concerned about their kids use of online technology but focusing on the technology — instead of the child’s social emotional state — is likely to divert their attention from real issues. And, as Olweus pointed out in this paper, “It may also create feelings of powerlessness and helplessness in the face of the presumably ‘huge’ and ubiquitous cyberbullying problem.. [and] that fixating on cyberbullying could encourage “an unfortunate shift in the focus of anti-bullying work if digital bullying is seen as the key bullying problem in the schools.”

Some research exists indicating that the expansion of anti-bullying policies is making things worse.

University of Texas at Arlington criminologist Seokjin Jeong analyzed data collected from 7,000 students from all 50 states.

He thought the results would be predictable and would show that anti-bullying programs curb bullying. Instead — he found the opposite.

Jeong said it was, “A very disappointing and a very surprising thing. Our anti-bullying programs, either intervention or prevention does not work.”

The study concluded that students at schools with anti-bullying programs might actually be more likely to become a victim of bullying. It also found that students at schools with no bullying programs were less likely to become victims.

The results were stunning for Jeong. “Usually people expect an anti-bullying program to have some impact — some positive impact.”

i-Safe says 42% have been bullied online, but only 25% have had it happen “more than once.” 58% have had something “mean or hurtful” said to them, but only 40% have seen repeat occurrences. There’s a huge gap between these single events and pervasive behavior and that gap is being exploited.

The detailed methodology from the Harris Poll powering the NCPC’s bullying numbers is no longer posted at its site, but the four-page summary uses the following to define “bullying.”

– Someone pretending to be someone else in order to trick them online, getting them to reveal personal information.
– Someone lying about someone online.
– Pretending to be them while communicating with someone else.
– Posting unflattering pictures of them online, without permission.

Between the weak definitions and the inclusion of one-time events, NCPC has watered down “bullying” to define actions that, while temporarily unpleasant and/or embarrassing, are hardly evidence of “aggressive behavior repeated over time.”

This isn’t to say that cyberbullying doesn’t exist and isn’t a problem. This is simply to point out that the more worrisome the numbers presented, the more likely there’s a narrative or product being pushed that benefits those doing the pushing. The downside, as noted by Olweus above, is that real problems are being ignored while legislators and school administrators chase down incidents common to any group of people interacting with each other, especially children and teens.

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Comments on “The Exaggeration Of The Cyberbullying Problem Is Harming Anti-Bullying Efforts”

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Ninja (profile) says:

Much like hysteria has allowed the definitions of terrorism to broaden till they were out of control and started threatening the very foundations of the free society. Some hysteric morons are helping broaden the definition of bullying to a point where we are simply destroying the futures of the children. Something bully would never achieve on such a broad scale by itself if put in perspective. Same with terrorism.

Michael (profile) says:

The Centers for Disease Control found in 2011 that 16.2 percent of students had been bullied via email, chat rooms, instant messaging, websites or texting — compared to 20.1 percent who had been bullied on school property (traditional bullying)

I think these statistics make a lot of sense. More actual bullying is likely to take place in person when the bully actually could do some physical harm.

Putting that aside for a minute, when did bullying become a disease? Doesn’t the CDC have enough infectious diseases to deal with?

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think these statistics make a lot of sense. More actual bullying is likely to take place in person when the bully actually could do some physical harm.

Maybe I’m just getting old, but I’ve never really considered verbal insults or whatnot as bullying. Bullying (in my mind) is when it involves physical intimidation and/or some type of physical action.

I was raised on the motto that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”.

Maybe all those padded, rubber coated, “safety” playgrounds are creating a generation of thin-skinned children who will have a very rude awakening when they find out that the world is a very hard place and very little is “fair”.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Maybe I’m just getting old, but I’ve never really considered verbal insults or whatnot as bullying.”

And you would be right, to an extent. A few words here and there are nothing, but if it happens every single day for years, it can be more damaging then a broken bone. Bones heal, but the sense of self that one builds when growing up lasts a lifetime.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

It boils down to how you react to those words. Turning them against the bully in a classy way often does wonders. But it takes parents helping the kid deal with it. Sometimes getting a little physical may help. I had to hit one guy hard once to stop the bullying. I wouldn’t advocate kids reacting like that Zangief kid but as far as I read from the story he did the right thing and got a ton of respect in return.

Sometimes not reacting or ignoring (even if you really weren’t affected by the words) will only lead to some escalation till it gets physical. Sometimes going Zangief is the only way out. Obviously the school may step in in the real bullying cases and end it but it’s better for the kid if he/she can do it by their own efforts.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“It boils down to how you react to those words.”

If you have the willpower to ignore the words, then yes. But how many children have the willpower to ignore the words? And how many less know to use that willpower to ignore the words?

If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have been bullied. I wouldn’t have listened to the idiot adults telling me “just ignore the bullies, they’ll get bored and go away”. I would have done exactly what Gwiz did and started joking with them. But children are inexperienced and teenagers are hard wired to be stupid (not kidding, it’s actually biological).

You may have been able to get away from the years of verbal abuse before it started, but not all of us were so lucky.

To loop back in on the topic at hand, while I would go back and change a few things that I did, I would not want to be a bullied kid today. With all these idiot adults trying to stop bullying and failing miserably, they’re just making it worse. Your physical response and Gwiz’s joking response would put both of you under the boot.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

If you have the willpower to ignore the words, then yes. But how many children have the willpower to ignore the words?

It’s not a matter of willpower. This is a skill that is learned, and can be taught. In fact, it used to be taught as a part of normal parenting. This is the way you address the issue of bullying, not by the way it’s being addressed now. What we’re doing now is, essentially, trying to replace bullying by kids with bullying by authority figures.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Bones heal, but the sense of self that one builds when growing up lasts a lifetime.

Right. Which is why my parents instilled the notion that words can’t hurt. It was armor against bullying by promoting the idea that self-worth can only come from within and the words of others are insignificant.

I was slight of build growing up and was bullied by the “jocks” fairly often. My defense was usually humor. If you got the other guy laughing, even by being self-deprecating, the situation was usually diffused. Bullies are looking for a specific reaction and if you don’t give them that satisfaction they usually search for easier targets.

Brazenly anonymous says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

And that sense of self can be built in spite of all the bullying in the world, even if you can’t stop the bullies.

Even if the bullying is accomplished through some action that irrationally causes your skin to crawl without anyone laying a hand on you. You can’t ignore that, you can’t fight back against that (that’s what they’re after). You deal with it and grow up and forge your life.

There are things in this world that cut far deeper than any bully can. Nothing can ever cut deep enough to take who you are away from you. Even that which would drive you to take your life, so long as something stops you (and the bullies, they can’t come close to that on their own).

I have lived the above. My sense of self is intact.

What destroys the sense of self is when a parent or other authority takes all agency away from a child. Bullying can’t do that. Trying to protect a kid from every possible danger, and smothering them when that protection lapses, almost. always. will.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Sometimes you have to fight back against bullies. Let’s say there are those in this world who think that they can get away with their badness. They’ll have their asses handed to them. They might even beg for mercy to those who beat them up.

As far as I’m concerned, bullying will only make you end up making enemies. If you try making peace with every bully there is, they may use that as a means to take advantage of you.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

You, sir or ma’am (most likely, sir), are a biased prick who thinks that he can go around doing whatever wants and harm other people whenever he wants. Who do you think that you are, the ruler of this world?

Well, I have news for you, social Darwinist. If you get out there and force your way of thinking on others, they’ll likely pay you back for your bad behavior. From what I heard, kindness can take you far in life than meanness.

So you better think about what I told you unless you want your ass handed to you.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Right, so blame attempts to improve matters!

“That’s the technique of quibbling about verbal approximations as if disproves the overall point.”

No, that doesn’t disprove the overall point, nor was it meant to. The independent studies quoted after that is what disproves the overall point, the “quibbling” is just pointing out the personalities of those who make those claims.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Right, so blame attempts to improve matters!

You are an obnoxious moron. Being a victim of bullying in my teenage days I can tell he is absolutely right. Kids quarrel for minor things, swear at each other and that’s it, friends again. They also pick on other kids for something (ie: glasses, brackets, a bigger ear and so forth) but this is not always bullying. I was pretty fat (thankfully it’s in the past heh) when I was a kid and some other kids called me all sorts of names for that. At the same time I joined the others to pick on a different kid who was previously picking on me. And we laughed. Bullying is very, very different. And the problem is not that widespread and it doesn’t need severe measures like the ones that people are taking.

I got out of the bullying because my parents were there for me and taught the tools to get out of it. And I did. With a little background help from the school as I found out years after that was very narrowly focused at the real bullying.

V says:

The study concluded that students at schools with anti-bullying programs might actually be more likely to become a victim of bullying. It also found that students at schools with no bullying programs were less likely to become victims.

I don’t know how the study was conducted or how the results were complied, but as written this reasoning is flawed. I would expect that schools with anti-bully programs to have higher rates of bullying incidents. That’s probably what drove them to implement the program. Conversely schools with low rates of bullying wouldn’t have need of them. In other words, the reasoning used in the article make actually be reversing cause and effect here.

To truly see if these programs are effective one would need to study bullying before and after the programs were implemented at those schools, preferably over several years, as it takes time for a culture to change.

Brazenly Anonymous says:

Re: Re:

There is nothing necessarily inconsistent in the conclusions as presented. The conclusions do not preclude the inclusion of proper testing of the effects of the programs.

However, upon actual review of the study which can be found at:, it would appear that the study is actually deficient in this way.

Alt0 says:

Re: Re:

There is also another factor, reporting.
Schools with a program would undoubtedly receive more reports of bullying through the channels the program opens, while without a program (and those channels) reports would be fewer.

You always get more suggestions when you put up a suggestion box.

So then, schools with a program have more bullying reported but not necessarily more bullying.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Imagine if instead of expecting an app, law, service to handle these things for you…
you put on your I’m a fscking parent pants and…
– taught your kid some people just suck
– got to know other parents
– considered your special snowflake might be an ass sometime
– stopped throwing your hands up and abdicating being the adult

Hi, I’m TAC and I was bullied… a lot.
It made me the sensitive wonderful person I am today. >:D (ignore the lawsuits)

I’m from an age where my parental units could call other parental units and “discuss” the issue without needing a Dr. Phil very special episode to tell them how to overreact.

I’m also became really deft at finding the weak spot in those who would pursue me, and exploiting it. I became way less fun to bully when I knew their secret shames and wasn’t afraid to knock them down a few pegs they gained putting me down.

ProTip – KIDS SUCK. Just like in the real world there is a pecking order. If you don’t allow you kid to figure out the rules they will grow up and do stupid shit like blindly accept the Patriot Act.

Much of the hysteria lumps all sorts of things together that are not the same….
1 girl telling another she is fat or ugly shortly after she acquired the other ones former BF… ummm not bullying.

If its 10,000 texts… that requires a real response.

‘Merkia where adults call 911 from drive thru windows because they wouldn’t make the burger their way… maybe its time to stop overreacting to every fscking thing.

Anonymous Coward says:

This just in!

Life Sucks sometimes and people are looking at way to NOT teach their kids how to deal/cope or better themselves.

Speaking as a person whom was bullied…
Stand up for yourself OR ELSE!

You are going to be bullied by EVERYONE!!!
Your boss, your kids, your best friend, your worst enemy, your backstabbing politicians and sure as hell by law enforcement.

People need to instead learn how to take care of themselves instead of being taught how to cry like a baby to someone else about it! They don’t actually give a rats ass about you, they just want to get your stupid case off their desk!

Anon says:

Re: This just in!

YOU ASS-FUCKIN’ HYPOCRITE!!! You can’t expect everybody to deal with bullyin’ like you do! And FYI, not everyone has and will have thick skin like you! Forcin’ people to have thick skin goes to show that they have to deal with every other person without ANY help even if it means having crap beaten out of them.

What if you someone in your family can’t defend himself or herself?! Are you goin’ to force him or her to tolerate being bullied nonstop?! If you do, you’ll get in big trouble for it.

Judging by what you posted, it seems to me that you advocate bullying in secret. How pathetic of you.

Instead of expecting everyone to always stand up for themselves in your way, you have to learn to stick up for them. But if you want to continue being a selfish prick and letting victims get shit on, you’ll pay the price for it.

Anon says:

Re: anti-bullying video

You like hell for claimin’ that anti-bullyin’ is crap and for claiming that adults who make that video are idiots! If I didn’t know better, I’d say that you secretly bullying. Fr that, you ought to have you ass beaten.

If any bully beats a kid’s ass without being provoked, he or she should get his ass kicked in return.

Todd Jones (profile) says:

Cyber Assault

when you think about TV police show terms like “Assault and Battery” do you realize that the felony carries the same weight for the Battery (the hitting) as the ‘Assault’ – assault is actually the FEAR, not physical contact. So if you are inflicting emotional hurt, isn’t that assault.. and pretty serious stuff

Anon says:

Re: cyber bullinging

You need to back off and quit bein’ a macho douche. Seriously, being a real man isn’t about being macho. Instead, it’s about caring for others without letting them take advantage of him.

And tellin’ everyone to man up isn’t going to make them brave. You have to realize that not everybody thinks like you. So learn to be sensitive and considerate instead of bein’ a jerk to them!

{Unknown} says:

I am 14, I am bullied in high school. Here’s a tip for fellow nerds and ‘horrible victims’: don’t escalate it, don’t tell, flip the bird, say go F yourself, and walk away. If you don’t reply, you will be made out as you don’t have the balls to respond. The bully won’t stop/slow down for a while; escalating it will make it a big deal. Then… the worst option: telling/bitching/getting an adult. You will get the shit beaten out of you later for this. Also, most likely, you will get punished by your parents and the school because you probably said some crap back. Even if you are the good guy, remember, school is very bias :there isn’t a perfected legal system, and, the jock is almost always friends w/ the teacher. Telling is the worst option & is a last resort.

{Unknown} says:

Re: Re:

This leads to cyber bullying statistics. These people are clear dumbasses when it comes to online ; I have mild aspergers & I know more about social skills online. Online, EVERYONE IS A DOUCHEBAG!! Online, people will insult each other just because they are in a fandom. I have flamed cloppers because they have sexual attraction to a horse. I am flamed constantly for writing a Sonic fanfic. It isn’t furri-tastic or anything tho. Another thing is that they include flame-wars as cyber bullying. It isn’t. A flame-war is just an argument w/ profanity online. Most of the time, neither sides care/ take offense to it. The reason these “cyberbullying kills 1more!” Is because it’s so rare for somebody to take extreme offense from somebody they don’t even know flames them and they take it too srsly. Sorry for any improper grammar, i’m on my phone.

Anon says:

Re: Re:

You’re a big fat liar and hypocrite, asswipe! How you’re hypocritical is that you told victims not to escalate bullying but suggested that they tell bullies to go fuck themselves and flip them off. Do you realize how much that would make bullies beat them up?!

If you think that telling is the worst option, you’re full of shit! If someone’s threatening you and you can’t handle it by yourself, you have to tell whether you like it or not. Otherwise, you’ll continue to be victimized until you die.

Another way that you’re a liar is your lumping all schools into one category. FYI, there are schools who do help students! are that blind to find out?!

As far as I’m concerned, you’re one of those bullied victims who I don’t feel sorry for because you gave bad advice. If you do care about other victims, then you DON’T GIVE BAD ADVICE!!! If you do, you’ll ass will be handed to you.

Anon says:

Re: Cyberbullying isn't an actual thing.

No, you grow up, you insensitive cunt! If you think that there’s nothing wrong with badmouthing people online, you’re sadly mistaken. You can’t expect everyone to adjust to you if you’re going to be mean to everyone.

Honestly, social Darwinism is total bullshit because its followers expect everyone to bend to their will or die. Well, newsflash: Not everyone thinks like you! So quit making others think they should either be like you or die.

I dare you try to insulting a lot of people online and see if they don’t chew your ass out. Don’t be surprised if they do. And if you get banned for bein’ an asshole to them, serves you right.

It’s sad that you think that everybody should be like you when not everyone has to. Well, do me a favor and shove your support for cyberbullying up your ass if you refuse to quit being a bastard!

Anon says:

Re: Cyberbullying isn't an actual thing.

Another thing about you is that you lied about cyberbullying not being actual. If you’ve been on social media for a long time, you’d realize that cyberbullying is real. But you’re too blind to admit it.

Suppose someone who you care is being cyberbullied big time but you refuse to help him or her. If you force him or her to adjust to it, you’ll suffer the consequences for it.

What I’m trying to tell you is that not everyone can handle bein’ mouthed off to. If you badmouth anyone at work, you could fired for it.

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