Date posted: January 4, 2011
In an interesting piece in The Washington Post last week, psychology professor Susan Swearer debunks five myths about bullying. While all are important to understand, one, in particular, deserves more attention.
Myth #1 concerns the prevalence of bullying, particularly cyberbullying. Professor Swearer notes that surveys of the percentage of kids who have been bullied or cyberbullied show a wide variety of results. One may say as few as 10 percent of students have been bullied. Another study shows 47 percent. Surveys on cyberbullying have shown rates as high as 85 percent. How can that be?
First, there is no universally agreed upon definition of cyberbullying, and different surveys describe it using different words. Is it receiving a text or seeing a facebook post that made you feel uncomfortable or is it repeatedly receiving hurtful, insulting, or threatening communications? Various studies may be investigating totally different behaviors. As a reader, one has to know how the study defines cyberbullying.
Next, the questions asked in a survey may be worded in ways that encourage a large number of positive responses, or in ways that lead to fewer positive responses. Researchers and polling firms know how to manipulate the wording of questions to get the results a client wants. We see that all the time in politics. Similarly, they know how to carefully craft questions that will yield accurate and reliable information. A reader has to see what the questions actually asked and consider the motivations of the people behind the survey. Are they trying to find information, or just information that supports their own interests?
Finally, the people issuing the results can put their own spin on the numbers. The sensational tends to be emphasized because it sells. Often, the executive summary or the press release is the only thing reporters have time to examine, so that’s what forms the basis of their stories. Fortunately, we can actually examine most studies ourselves, online, and see if the headlines are backed up by the data.
The accidental or sometimes deliberate misrepresentation of data about internet safety issues has done real damage to our ability to raise digitally aware and savvy kids. It’s exaggerated some concerns while under emphasizing other problems that affect more kids. It’s sometimes pushed curricula and legislation based on bad information. And it damages the credibility of adults when kids realize that we don’t know what we’re talking about.
We need more articles like this, debunking myths and establishing facts and we all need to be a little bit more media literate when we hear about the latest study emphasizing something scary.