Let's not create a cyberbullying panic

With bullying and cyberbullying in the news, it's easy to assume that it's an epidemic. Fortunately, it's not.

Larry Magid
Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.
Larry Magid
5 min read

Recent stories in the press about teenage cyberbullying and real-world bullying are sickening. It's hard to know how much cyberbullying contributed to her decision to kill herself, but the case of Phoebe Prince brings tears to my eyes. The South Hadley, Mass., 15-year-old was reportedly the brunt of repeated cruelty at the hands of classmates (six of whom are now facing criminal charges) until she put an end to her life.

Chesi-Fotos via Flickr Commons

There is also the recent cyberbullying case of Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old girl from Long Island, N.Y., who committed suicide last month after being taunted with cruel comments on the Web site FormSpring.me. Some of those comments reportedly even continued after her death.

And there are countless more bullying and cyberbullying cases that don't make headlines. But even though the overwhelming majority of children are able to "survive" being bullied doesn't mean that it's not painful. I still have emotional scars from being bullied when I was a teen.

Cases like these have contributed to what's starting to look like a bullying panic, not unlike the predator panic of a few years ago that caused people to worry (in most cases needlessly) about their children being sexually molested by someone they meet online. Those were great headlines and sound bites for politicians, but the research showed that it just wasn't the case for the vast majority of youth. While it is true that kids are many times more likely to be bullied and cyberbullied than sexually molested by online strangers, we need to put this issue into some perspective. Yes we should be concerned, but there is no cause for panic.

Bullying on the decline
As prominent as it is, bullying and cyberbullying are not the norm. Most young people want no part of bullying and consider it reprehensible behavior. Depending on what study you read, anywhere from 15 percent to 30 percent of teens say they have experienced some type of bullying or harassment from their peers.

And when it comes to bullying in general, the trend is moving in the right direction. Rather than an epidemic, bullying is actually on the decline. A study published last month in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that the percentage of youth (a 2 to 17 years old) reporting physical bullying in the past year went down from 22 percent in 2003 to 15 percent in 2008.

A national study of youthcommissioned by the Girl Scouts came to a similar conclusion. Young people are actually more responsible, more involved in their community, and more tolerant of diversity than they were 20 years ago. The survey found that 84 percent of youth said they wouldn't forward an embarrassing e-mail about someone else; 6 percent said they would. That's 6 percent too many but still a relatively small minority.

Not all surveys have the same results. In February, the Cyberbullying Research Center polled 4,000 teenagers from a large U.S. school district and found that 15.9 percent of boys and 25.8 percent of girls reported having been cyberbullied at some point in their life. Among the boys, 7.1 percent said they had been cyberbullied in the last 30 days and 7.9 percent of girls had been victims during that time period. When combining genders, overall 20.7 percent of teens say they've been cyberbullied in their lifetimes with 7.4 percent saying they were cyberbullied in the past 30 days. A survey conducted last year by Cox Communications found that approximately 19 percent of teens say they've been cyberbullied online or via text message and that 10 percent say they've cyberbullied someone else.

Turning numbers into a positive
There is no question that there is a problem and I certainly don't want sugarcoat it, but it's also important to look at it from the positive side as well. It's worth pointing out that about 80 percent of teens say they have not been cyberbullied while 90 percent of teens say they haven't cyberbullied other teens.

Posing the issue in the positive is not just a silly math trick--it's actually a strategy that can help reduce bullying or, at least marginalize those who engage in it.

In a paper (PDF) presented at the 2008 National Conference on the Social Norms Approach, H. Wesley Perkins and David Craig reported on a survey of more than 52,000 students from 78 secondary schools and concluded that "while bullying is substantial, it is not the norm." They went on to say that "the most common (and erroneous) perception, however, is that the majority engage in and support such behavior." The reason that this is an important observation is because, as the researchers found, the "perceptions of bullying behaviors are highly predictive of personal bullying behavior." Even though the "norm is not to bully," only a minority of young people realize that. If kids think that bullying is common or "normal," they are more likely to be bullies.

Based on this research, the commonly held belief that we are going through an "epidemic" of bullying or cyberbullying is not only inaccurate, but it is likely contributing to the problem.

A better strategy is to try to convince young people that bullying is not only wrong and and unacceptable but is abnormal behavior, practiced by a small group of outliers. Taking it a step further, how can we marginalize bullies so that they--not their victims--are seen as losers and how can we enlist young people themselves to stand up against bullying when they see it or hear about it.

Adults as role models
Adults need to be good role models. Politicians need to think about this the next time they consider demonizing (as opposed to criticizing) an opponent. Media personalities and talk show hosts need to think about the messages they're giving to children when they engage in name calling. We all need to be aware of comments we make in the presence of children and even people who comment on blogs need to think about the difference between legitimate criticism and derision. Children learn by observing our behavior, and there are plenty of adults who behave like bullies.

Changing behavior isn't easy, but it's not impossible. I've been watching episodes of the TV show Mad Men, which is set in the 1960s when it was acceptable to smoke around other people, ride in cars without seat belts, leave trash everywhere, make derogatory comments about minorities, and treat women as inferior beings. We haven't yet completely eliminated any of those dangerous or antisocial behaviors, but we've come a long way. With concerted effort and national leadership, we can do the same with bullying.