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
, 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.