Parents of pre-teens and adolescents have a lot to worry about, but a new study says cyber-bullying isn’t nearly as rampant as many believe.
According to two national studies of 5,000 young people, only 15 percent said they’d been bullied online last year. In a presentation to the American Psychological Association, Michele Ybarra, research director at the nonprofit Center for Innovative Public Health Research, said past studies showed the cyber-bullying rate ranked from 30 to 72 percent, far more than the current studies show.
“We assume it’s this overwhelming thing, that everybody’s being bullied and that it’s inescapable — that’s not totally accurate,” Ybarra said.
High-profile cases, including that of college student Tyler Clementi, who killed himself after his roommate used a webcam to spy on his homosexual encounters, as well as other cases of children being bullied online, have caused people to believe that most young people are harassed online, but Ybarra said the survey shows that it may not be so prominent.
“Because we’re seeing stories that are really serious,” Ybarra said, “it does give this sort of sense that it is happening all over the place.”
But should parents breathe a sigh of relief and not be so concerned — and with the school year starting in upcoming days, ease their careful watch over their children’s online activities? Not so fast, warn other experts.
What Is Cyber-Bullying?
Cyber-bullying expert Dr. Joel Haber told NBC News part of the problem is that there is so much debate over what cyber-bullying is, that surveys such as the one Ybarra discussed don’t really encompass what hazards teens face online.
Traditional bullying involves repeated abuse by one person in power over the victim, Haber says but online, power is determined by how popular teens are in the digital world, measured, for example, on Facebook, where having more friends means more status. Many people, even cyber-bullying victims, think that online harassment needs to happen more than once to considered as bullying — but sometimes it only has to happen once to affect a young person’s self-worth and ego.
“Whether it’s kids being exclusionary online or being mean online, harassment happens more frequently than real cyber-bullying, where somebody has more power over you and hurts you,” Haber said.
And those one-time incidents are happening more often than people admit, possibly because teens and their parents don’t find the threats severe enough to complain. The new studies, while saying cyber-bullying incidents are over-reported, found that nearly half the teens reported being victims of cyber-harassment at least once.
How Does It Happen?
With the growth of Facebook and Twitter, teens are more connected than ever — especially since mobile devices keep them online even when they’re not home. Mobile devices, though, are a true cyber-bully’s dream. When people first got home computers, they were careful to keep them in a central location in their home, where parents could keep an eye on their children’s activities.
That means that not only can parents protect their children from cyber-bullying — but they can watch their children to make sure they’re not treating others badly online. However, mobile devices mean teens are more likely to be online and away from adult supervision. And if teens don’t complain to their parents and the adults aren’t monitoring their online activities, sometimes the cyber-bullying raises to a fever pitch — and can escalate to tragedy — before someone takes action.
How It Crosses the Line
Teens are naturally sarcastic with each other, so it can be a slippery slope from teasing to harassment and then to cyber-bullying. Haber says much of what’s said online is taken literally because it lacks tone and context, meaning even the most innocent-seeming words can seem threatening to an unsuspecting person.
“Lots of kids report that other kids say mean or hurtful things online or that they purposely leave them out of group things online,” Haber said. “But because they don’t have the context, they don’t know if it was intentional.”
Cyber-bullying is mainly centered in power, just like real-life bullying. And similarly, sometimes a good “punch,” or a denial of service, is all it takes to make a bully back down. For example, last week, police arrested a British teen and released him with a warning about harassing Olympic diver Tom Daley online, after the athlete said he wanted to win the gold to honor his father, a victim of brain cancer. When Daley didn’t medal, the 17-year-old tweeted, “You let your dad down I hope you know that.”
Being online also gives some people a sense of power they don’t otherwise have, and they take advantage of it. After all, when you’re online, particularly on Twitter, nobody knows how big you are, or how strong, or where you are. And often, there are very few repercussions for cyber-bullying, beyond being kicked off Facebook or Twitter — and any teen knows how to get around that by creating a new, fake profile.
Psychologists, according to medicaldaily.com, say attacks increase when people can’t see the faces of those they’re harassing, and this sense of bravado increases when they don’t think they’ll get caught. Since online all non-verbal cues like body language and tone are removed, it’s easy to let a situation escalate online, experts say, meaning people who would never throw a punch in person have no problem throwing verbal jabs at each other behind the protection of a hashtag.
How Do You Fight a Cyber-Bully?
Even if a teen doesn’t realize he or she is being bullied, they still know when someone’s harassing them. And for a person whose self-esteem may be low anyway — as is the case with many teenagers by nature — a cyber-bully or a group of them may chip away at their self-worth, sometimes with tragic consequences. And even if teens are reporting being cyber-bullied less, they’re not equating that with harassment, which could be much more subtle but every bit as dangerous. Experts suggest teens be very careful online, whether on a computer or mobile device, and limit their contacts to only the safe people they know — and block the rest.
Cyber-bullies — just like those bullies back in the day on the playground — target people over whom they believe they’ll have some power. And when teens start reporting those bullies to their parents, to Facebook and Google, or even to school leaders, they have an opportunity to take away the harasser’s power. If that starts happening more often, future studies will continue to report these most recent findings that cyber-bullying isn’t the epidemic people think, and cyber-bullying will lose some of its power. ♦