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Myths and conflicting cyberbullying research

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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.

  • http://www.onlinesocialsavvy.com Kelly EHB

    I appreciate your attention to this important topic. However, overall, I think your post seems to try to minimize cyberbullying – you seem to say that there are people trying to inflate cyberbullying numbers, for nefarious purposes of their own. It seems to me, at least, that scaring parents is not the goal of most cyberbullying sites. On the contrary, educating and empowering these parents to take care of their kids, appears to be the goal.

    I don’t feel that I’m overly concerned about cyberbullying. However, I’m also aware that it’s real – it’s happening – and it’s up to me to make sure that my child is safe from its harm.

    • FGallagher

      I don’t want to minimize or denigrate cyberbullying at all. It is a real problem and you are absolutely right to be aware, informed, and to make sure your child is protected, where possible, and prepared in the event something does happen.

      However, there is not a lot of good information about cyberbullying. We don’t really know the prevalence of it because different surveys define it differently and because kids have a very different sense of what that term means than adults do. If ten percent of kids are being cyberbullied, that calls for a very different set of responses at a school that would be the case if 80 percent of kids were affected. We also need to know what works in resolving cyberbullying situations and there isn’t a great deal of information here, either. At a bullying conference in Seattle in November, several speakers presented evidence that what we adults thought we knew about how to handle cyberbullying often results in making things worse.

      We need (a) more information and more consistent information so that we know what we’re actually dealing with and how to effectively respond and (b) we need to apply a little media literacy to any reports about alarming statistics so we at least know what the data actually is.