It’s tempting to say the conclusions reached in a recent study by Cartoon Network and the Cyberbullying Research Center at UW-Eau Claire were predictable. Of course, you might say, using technology to bully people is harmful.
But it’s not that simple. “Bad” is not a measure. Knowing something hurts people isn’t the same as being able to say how it does or how widespread it is. Nor does it examine the harm caused to specific ages. For that, the work by Prof. Justin Patchin and others in this study was groundbreaking.
The study will help guide Cartoon Network’s “Stop Bullying: Speak Up” campaign. The effort isn’t new — the network says it’s about 10 years old — but the research will allow a more precise aim at a specific issue. The goal is to reach 100 million homes. That seems achievable, given the fact Cartoon Network’s audience is often squarely in the tween demographic.
Patchin described the work in an interview with the L-T as “the first systematic effort to study the experiences and behaviors of tweens as a distinct group using a national sample.” It concluded at least one in five students in that age group experienced cyberbullying as victim, observer or, for 3%, as the bully.
The rise of mobile technology has made it easier than ever for bullying that begins in the school to continue in the home. It used to be that once a student was home that person was more or less protected. Truly enterprising bullies could still find ways. But the risks of being caught by a parent were considerable, as were the consequences of being caught.
It’s a different picture when everyone involved has a cellphone and an online handle that offers plausible deniability. There are far fewer built-in brakes on the bullying. Victims of the bullying can, and do, block people. But that’s of limited use when people can simply create a new identity and pick up where they left off.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing the study found, and the only genuine solution, is the fact around two-thirds of those surveyed said they would be willing to stop bullying behaviors. Peer pressure carries a very genuine weight, and using that pressure to end bullying would be a worthy use of it.
Of course, that’s only possible if people really do step in. The willingness to do something in the abstract is different from actually doing it in real time.
Patchin had advice. He said parents and other adults should be talking to students about what they can do. “They’re seeing it,” he said. “They just need the tools to know how to respond.”
We shouldn’t be relying on just the students themselves. We need older siblings, parents, teachers and others to do their parts as well. Each has authority in a different way and, if they speak with a common message, it will make a difference.
That message is clear from the report’s conclusion:
“The most important step for parents to take when their child is cyberbullied is to make sure they are safe, and to convey unconditional support. Parents must demonstrate to their children through words and actions that they both desire the same end result: that the cyberbullying stop and that life does not become even more difficult.”
The report is equally clear on the need for adults to take the lead and ensure tweens feel they can come to them in the first place when bullying happens. Researchers concluded that responsibility “is on the shoulders of adults rather than children,” and they acknowledged that requires time and effort.
Bullying will, unfortunately, continue to be an issue despite people’s best efforts. It always has been and there is little in human nature to suggest that will change. How we respond to it can and must change. This research offers a road map for how we might do so.
Effective responses will require effort. We don’t see blanket policies as a solution. Attempts to use them as such have created inane results that punished victims along with instigators. Besides, the line between friends teasing one another and bullying behavior, between an insult and a poor choice of words, isn’t always as clear as we might wish.
The full report is available, appropriately enough, online. If you have trouble finding it, you might do worse than to ask a tween for help.
They probably know how to use, or misuse, the internet at least as well as you.