Social Connections Can Intensify And Alleviate Cyberbullying

University Place: Teens Usually Know Who Is Bullying Them
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Maurizio Pesce (CC BY 2.0)

Connections are the key to stopping bullying: Teens are less likely to bully others in person or online if they have adults in their lives whom they don't want to disappoint.

The connection between parents and their children is especially important to ending or preventing bullying. Parents can teach their children how to use technology responsibly and appropriately, and help them be prepared for trouble. Adults who realize a child is being bullied can acknowledge the problem and assure the child the adult will be an ally.

As for teens, they are likely to be connected to the people they bully and to the people who bully them — even with the assumed anonymity of cyberbullying, which is the repeated and intentional use of a computer, cell phone or other electronic device to inflict harm. Most of the time, a cyberbully is in the same social circle as the victim, or is a former friend, a former romantic partner, or the new romantic partner of the former romantic partner.

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire criminal justice professor Justin Patchin, a co-founder and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, explored these and other insights into bullying in a March 16, 2016, lecture recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place.

Patchin and the center's other co-director, Sameer Hinduja, have published many books and articles about cyberbullying based in part on their surveys of teenagers. They've found that people who are being cyberbullied should save the evidence and should never respond or retaliate. More generally, Patchin has found everyone has a responsibility to respond to bullying.


Key facts

  • Children's use of technology is hard for parents to monitor and supervise.

  • In surveys of teenagers about their technology use, using the internet for school work is always among their top five reported activities.

  • An average teen sends and receives 2,000 text messages a month. Among social networks, Instagram is more popular among middle schoolers than Facebook or Snapchat.

  • Intent and repetition distinguish bullying from other hurtful behavior. Bullying can be physical or relational, and it involves being mean, hurtful and/or disrespectful. It can incorporate rumors and gossip. Someone who intentionally shoves and knocks down a person one time has committed assault. If he or she repeats the assault with the same victim, he or she is a bully. Bullies may not understand the harm they cause.

  • A common reason teens give for bullying is the other person did something to them first. However, the number one reason was the bully thought their action was funny.

  • The viral nature of electronic information and dissemination takes place in an era of "limitless vulnerability," Patchin said. This constant access creates a situation in which teens can no longer escape school-based bullies.

  • Seventy percent or more of teens who are targets of bullying or cyberbullying do not tell adults about their experiences.

  • The Cyberbullying Research Center found that from 2007 to 2015, about 26 percent of middle and high school students were cyberbullied at some point. In a series of surveys of teens, about 16 percent admitted they had cyberbullied others at some point, and 4 to 5 percent said they did it in the previous 30 days.

  • Incidents of cyberbullying are relatively stable or may be increasing slightly, but the rate is not surging to epidemic levels. Adolescent girls are involved in cyberbullying at least as often, if not more often, than boys. Overall, though, traditional bullying is more common than cyberbullying, with the former more likely to take place at school.

  • Cyberbullying is linked to low self-esteem, depression and suicidal ideation.

  • Schools can discipline students for off-campus behaviors if it's shown that their actions result in a substantial disruption of the learning environment at school. About 30 percent of 1,000 middle schoolers who were surveyed thought the police would punish them for bullying, but 77 percent thought the school would punish them. Laws and threats of formal punishment will not stop teens from using technology to bully others. Zero tolerance policies will not help, nor will public shaming by a parent.

  • All 50 states have laws against bullying. Wisconsin is one of two whose laws do not mention cyberbullying. It does have a separate law (2013 Wisconsin Act 43) forbidding the online posting of "private representations" of people without their consent, colloquially known as a "revenge porn" law.

Key quotes

  • On defining bullying: "When somebody says or does something unintentionally hurtful one time, they're being rude. … When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful one time, then they're being mean. … But when somebody does something intentionally hurtful, and they do it over and over and over again, that's bullying."

  • On being a bully and a victim: "Maybe you've been bullied, maybe you've done something you realized after the fact could be defined as bullying, maybe like me it was both. I was bullied in middle school, and then to get the heat off myself, I turned on and bullied somebody else."

  • On getting a child a cell phone: "I usually say, get your child a cell phone at an age that's a little bit younger than your gut is telling you is appropriate. … If you provide them that cell phone at a relatively early age, whenever that is for your child, you can put a lot of restrictions on it."

  • On who uses which social media services: "Parents are on Facebook, grandparents are on Facebook, aunties, uncles, they're all on Facebook. So teens are looking for alternative environments in which to associate with their friends where their parents aren't, right, so if parents want to do away with Snapchat, just take over Snapchat, right, start hanging out on Instagram. You know, the teens will go to other environments."

  • On what parents shouldn't do to avoid problems: "We can't take away the technology, nor should we try."

  • On what parents should do: "We need to teach [kids] how to use [technology] responsibly and appropriately, and let them know what the potential pitfalls might be."

  • On an adult listening to a bullying victim: "You're being bullied, and especially cyberbullied, you feel completely alone. You feel like nobody understands, nobody cares, it's no big deal, just turn off the computer. So expressing to that young person that this is a legitimate complaint and that I'm on your side, I stand with you is definitely a step in the right direction."

  • On the value of a teen's relationship with an adult: "We have this thing in criminal justice called virtual supervision, where if I have a strong connection or relationship to another person, whether it's a parent, a coach, a teacher, whoever, that when I'm confronted with a situation where I could engage in deviant behavior, even if they're not around, I'm going to behave as if they were."

  • On the benefits of a positive school climate: "We know that the quality of the climate at school is related to … less bullying, less fighting, better academic achievement. … Better quality of climate at school leads to less online behavioral problems."

  • On the value of kindness: "We need to make kindness go viral. I look at kindness and compassion and caring as the opposite of bullying, so we need to encourage our students to choose kind. And we can choose technology for that as well."
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