It can get better

Confronting cyberbullying among young people

When Megan Davies got the inevitable request for a cell phone from her preteen daughter Madeline, she was apprehensive, but prepared. That’s because they had both participated in a SSHRC-funded study looking into cyberbullying.

She and Madeline, who was 10 at the time, had completed questionnaires as part of the study, and the experience proved to be a great conversation starter for Davies.

“Parents of Grade 4 students at the time weren’t thinking about this. It was a whole new world,” recalls Davies. “It made me more concerned about giving her access to technology, and it made me want to put it off as long as I could.”

However, “Participating in the study gave me a forum to start talking to my daughter about this,” says Davies. She feels it made both her and Madeline, who is now in high school, more prepared for the dangers of social media today.

Under a SSHRC Standard Research Grant, the three-year study (2012-14)—Motivations for Cyberbullying: A longitudinal and multi-perspective inquiry, took a comprehensive look at the issue of bullying over social media. In it, the Toronto District School Board partnered with researchers from the University of Toronto, led by Faye Mishna, a renowned expert on bullying and dean of the university’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.

The study involved 19 schools in the school board district, with a total of 671 students in Grades 4, 7 and 10 answering questionnaires, along with parents and teachers. Interviews with 57 students by researchers were also part of the study.

The study had some surprising revelations:

  • There has been a normalization of cyberbullying. The young people participating in the study weren’t sure what cyberbullying is exactly, since “joking” among friends and peers, even though hurtful to the subject, is considered an expected part of using social media.
  • While young people know they should tell an adult about hurtful comments on social media, most don’t. Peer pressure and not wanting to make a big deal of a situation for fear of getting bullied even more are the prime reasons.
  • Cyberbullying behaviours are viewed differently by gender. Boys’ aggressive comments on social media are written off as “trash talk,” while girls’ comments are branded “drama.” Girls are, in fact, more deeply affected by cyberbullying, since much of the hostile behaviours online are appearance-based, and involve spreading rumours and sharing hurtful images of the intended target.

Mishna says the reasons why young people cyberbully vary. They do it, “to gain attention, to look cool and tough, to satisfy jealousy or to feel popular or powerful.”

While it hasn’t totally replaced face-to-face bullying, cyberbullying has more acute affects. Unlike schoolyard bullying that has only a few witnesses, cyberbullying has the entire Internet as potential bystanders, making the humiliation and hurt that much deeper, says Mishna.

What’s more, bullying over the Internet is easier and therefore can be more cruel because you can’t see the immediate impact on the victim.

“There is typically little access to social and contextual cues in the cyber world,” Mishna explains. This lack of face-to-face interaction, means the bully “misses signs that can signal something is really wrong and someone is really distressed.”

Mishna adds that in cyberbullying, the role of bully and victim is more fluid. “It’s easier to retaliate in cyberspace,” she says, so children “move back and forth between being target and perpetrator more frequently.”

The impact of Mishna’s study has reached the school administration level too. Swansea Junior and Senior Public School in Toronto, for example, was one of the schools that participated in the study.

Vice-principal Cherril George says, “Dr. Mishna’s study has enlightened our school community about the various forms of cyberbullying and the adverse and damaging effects it has not only the students who are being bullied, but also on friends and other family members.”

“These findings have motivated us to work in collaboration with our school council, support workers and other partners in tailoring workshops and presentations to educate the entire school community. Our support professionals also got some insight about issues that affect students in particular age groups,” she adds.

Mishna plans to spread awareness of this issue by continuing to engage with policy-makers, and providing advice to schools, parents, youth and corporate stakeholders, like Telus, with the goal of helping everyone navigate the minefield of social media safely.