Teens have been bullying each other for generations. The latest generation, however, has been able to utilise technology to expand their reach and the extent of their harm. This phenomenon is being called cyberbullying, which we formally define as: "wilful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, mobile phones, and other electronic devices."
Basically, we are referring to incidents where adolescents use technology, usually computers or mobile phones, to harass, threaten, humiliate, or otherwise hassle their peers. For example, youth can send hurtful text messages to others or spread rumours using cell phones or computers. Teens have also created web pages, videos, and profiles on social networking sites making fun of others. With cell phones, youth have taken pictures in a bedroom, a bathroom, or another location where privacy is expected, and posted or distributed them online. More recently, some have recorded unauthorised videos of other kids and uploaded them for the world to see, rate, tag, and discuss.
At the Cyberbullying Research Center, we are dedicated to learning more about the nature and extent of cyberbullying so that we can equip adults and teens with resources to do something about it. Dr. Sameer Hinduja (Florida Atlantic University) and I have been exploring cyberbullying for the last 10 years, and while there is still a lot that we still don't know, the cyberbullying picture is now starting to come into clearer focus.
We have formally surveyed over 12,000 middle and high school students from over 80 schools across the United States about their experiences with cyberbullying - using both quantitative and qualitative approaches (see here for more details about the different samples). We find that, on average, about 27% of teens has been the target of cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime (about 12% have experienced it in the previous 30 days). We also find that about 17% of teens admit to cyberbullying others. These results are consistent with the weight of the cyberbullying research that has been done in the United States, and abroad. Earlier this year, we reviewed 30 peer-reviewed journal articles that explored cyberbullying among adolescents and found that across these studies an average of 24% of teens had been the target of cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime (and about 17% admitted to cyberbullying others).
While we have a good idea about how many youth are experiencing cyberbullying, less is known about its causes and consequences. We are often asked why teens would ever cyberbully a peer. Well, this requires a complicated answer because the reasons are often just as varied as the students themselves, but most often those who cyberbully others tell us that they did it just to have fun and that they didn't think it was that big of a deal. For example, a 13-year-old girl told us that "it was all for fun, everyone was laughing and smiling, no one was really hurt."
Some tell us that they felt justified in cyberbullying others because the target did or said something that invited the harassment. A 14-year-old boy said: "My friend started spreading rumours about me, so I decided to get revenged and start talking at him and we got into a fight."
But to understand our children's behaviour, we don't need to look much further than to evaluate our own. Indeed, one cannot even turn on the television today without seeing example after example of adults harassing, threatening, or otherwise mistreating each other. Some of this occurs on reality TV shows or other syndicated programs, but there are also many instances that occur in commercials or political advertisements. Should we be surprised that teens are interacting in an uncivil way when the adults they look up to are behaving just as poorly? And school-aged youth are not the only ones involved in cyberbullying. In fact, we probably receive more emails and phone calls from adults who are being harassed online *by other adults* than from teens. So this isn't just an adolescent problem. If we are going to take steps to prevent cyberbullying among adolescents, we should start by looking at our own behaviors.
On Friday, 25 November, I will be participating in a live debate at Birkbeck's School of Business, Economics and Informatics. (For more information about the event, visit: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/business/about-us/bullying/seminar-two.) There I will discuss what I have learned about how teens are using technology to cause harm to their peers, along with prevention and response strategies for adults who work with them.
Bullying, no matter where it occurs, is a problem that we all need to take responsibility of. Unless we condemn all harassing, humiliating, and hurtful behaviors, they are likely to continue. And, unless we intentionally purpose to educating and encouraging youth to respect each other within a structured organisational and social climate where such behaviour is esteemed and normative, our efforts will be less than fruitful. You can learn more about our research and recommendations towards this end at www.cyberbullying.us.