I'm glad that media outlets and public officials are shining a light on cyberbullying and bullying in general. It's important to pay attention to this serious problem, but we need to keep it in perspective. As bad as it is, cyberbullying is not an epidemic and it's not killing our children.
Yes, it's probably one of the more widespread youth risks on the Internet and yes there are some well publicized horrific cases of cyberbullying victims who have committed suicide, but let's look at this in context.
Bullying has always been a problem among adolescents and, sadly, so has suicide. In the few known cases of suicide after cyberbullying, there are likely other contributing factors. That's not to diminish the tragedy or suggest that the cyberbullying didn't play a role but -- as with all online youth risk, we need to look at what else was going on in the child's life. Even when a suicide or other tragic event does occur, cyberbullying is often accompanied by a pattern of offline bullying and sometimes there are other issues including depression, problems at home, and self-esteem issues.
"Suicide," said psychologist Dr. Patti Agatson, "is a complex and multifaceted act that is the result of a combination of factors in any individual. What we need to learn more about is what are the protective factors, since many youth are bullied and do not engage in suicidal behaviors." Agaston is a board member of the International Bullying Prevention Association (IBPA) that's planning an upcoming conference themed "Bullying and Intolerance: From Risk to Resiliency?"
Bullying and teen suicide rates not rising
While there is increased awareness of the dangers of bullying and rightful concern over suicide, the percentage of youth who report being physically bullied actually decreased between 2003 and 2008 from 22% to 15%, according to a peer reviewed study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. And before making any assumptions about technology contributing to teen suicide, take a look at government data that shows (with the exception of 2004) a slight gradual decline in teen suicide rates from the 1990s to 2008.
High risk groups
Certain populations -- especially gay, lesbian and transgender (LGBT) youth, experience a significantly higher rate of bullying. An Iowa State University study found that 54% of LGBT youth had been victims of cyberbullying within the past 30 days. 45% of the respondents "reported feeling depressed as a result of being cyberbullied," according to the study's authors. 38% felt embarrassed, and 28% felt anxious about attending school. The authors reported that "more than a quarter (26%) had suicidal thoughts.
Numbers don't show a cyberbullying epidemic
Research from the Cyberbullying Research Center indicates that about one in five teens have been cyberbullied at least once in their lifetimes and 10% in the past 30 days. That's bad, but not an epidemic. A 2010 study by Cox Communications came up with numbers similar to those from the Cyberbullying Research Center, finding that approximately 19 percent of teens say they've been cyberbullied online or via text message and 10 percent say they've cyberbullied someone else. Partly because there is no single accepted definition of cyberbullying, you will find other numbers that are much higher and much lower.
One thing we know about cyberbullying is that it's often associated with real-world bullying. A UCLA study found that 85 percent of those bullied online were also bullied at school.
Exaggeration can increase risk
It may seem counterintuitive but research has shown that exaggeration and scare tactics can actually increase risk (see this brief slideshow). Exaggerating bullying makes it like like it's normal: "Everyone's does it so it must be OK." Norms research from Professors H. Wesley Perkins and David Craig has shown that emphasizing that most kids don't bully actually decreases bullying. As Cyberbullying Research Center co-director Justin Patchin said in my CBS News/CNET podcast, kids have a tendency to way overestimate the percentage of kids who bully (for more on why that's a problem, see this from my ConnectSafely.org co-director, Anne Collier). When reporting on suicide risk, it's important for media to study guidelines and be sensitive to risk of copycat suicides.
The most commonly recognized definition of bullying includes repeated, unwanted aggressive behavior over a period of time with an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim. In theory, that also covers cyberbullying, but some have taken a broader approach to cyberbullying to also include single or occasional episodes of a person insulting another person online. Indeed, because of the possibility of it being forwarded, a single episode of online harassment can have long-term consequences. "'Power' and 'repetition' may be manifested a bit differently online than in traditional bullying, Susan Limber, professor of psychology at Clemson University, said in an interview that appeared in a publication of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. She added, "a student willing to abuse technology can easily wield great power over his or her target just by having the ability to reach a large audience, and often by hiding his or her identity."
Manifestations of cyberbullying include name calling, sending embarrassing pictures, sharing personal information or secrets without permission, and spreading rumors. It can also include trickery, exclusion, and impersonation.
Not all bullying is equally harmful
Some have a much broader definition of cyberbullying that can include any type of mean or rude comment, even if it's not particularly hurtful or traumatic.
When talking about bullying and cyberbullying, it's important to remember that not every incident is equally harmful. There are horrendous cases where children are terribly hurt but there are many cases where kids are able to handle it themselves. That's not to say it's ever right -- there is never an excuse for being mean -- but parents and authorities need to avoid jumping to immediate conclusions until they understand the severity of an incident. And, of course, different children will react differently to incidents depending on a number of factors including their own physiological makeup, vulnerability and resiliency.
Signs of cyberbullying
It's not always obvious if a child is a victim of cyberbullying, but some possible signs include: suddenly being reluctant to go online or use a cell phone; avoiding a discussion about what they're doing online; depression, mood swings, change in eating habits; and aloofness or a general disinterest in school and activities. A child closing the browser or turning off the cell phone when a parent walks in the room can be a sign of cyberbullying, though it can also be a sign of other issues including an inappropriate relationship or just insistence on privacy.
Preventing and stopping cyberbullying
There are no silver bullets but at ConnectSafely.org (a site I help operate) we came up with a number of tips including: don't respond, don't retaliate; talk to a trusted peer or adult; and save the evidence. We also advise young people to be civil toward others and not to be bullies themselves. Finally, "be a friend, not a bystander." Don't forward mean messages and let bullies know that their actions are not cool.
Act, but don't overreact
If your child is cyberbullied, don't start by taking away his or her Internet privileges. That's one reason kids often don't talk about Net-related problems with parents. Instead, try to get your child to calmly explain what has happened. If possible, talk with the parents of the other kids involved and, if necessary, involve school authorities. If the impact of the bullying spills over to school (as it usually does), the school has a right to intervene to protect the child's right to
Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org and founder of SafeKids.com
Tips to Help Stop Cyberbullying (from ConnectSafely.org)
Resources for Students and Parents from CBS News' 48 Hours
Cyberbullying Epidemic? No! by Anne Collier
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