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A cyberbullying epidemic? No!

Please note: There is no cyberbullying epidemic. Like author and anti-bullying expert Rosalind Wiseman, I can’t believe how many times I’ve been asked about “the epidemic” and what’s to be done about it. Rosalind suggests that the epidemic is in bad PSAs and “educational” videos aimed at bullying prevention. I agree, but also suggest that we’ve been experiencing an epidemic of news coverage of cyberbullying. We have got to be able to make the distinction between our children’s experiences and what news stories seem to be saying about our children’s experiences – just as we distinguish between news of airline crashes and our own experiences with air travel. If 80% of children have *not* experienced cyberbullying (see this research from top cyberbullying researchers Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja), is cyberbullying an epidemic? I think not. And social norms research shows that when people get the facts – that most kids don’t cyberbully – bullying behavior goes down in direct proportion (see Slide 17 after clicking on “Slides” in the 4th bullet under Profs. Wesley Perkins and David Craig’s “Research Results” here). Sadly, I’ve even heard one so-called online-safety advocate refer to cyberbullying as a “pandemic,” which creates a different, very negative social norm. So it’s imperative that, as a society, we move past this phase of scary PSAs that often mention suicide and seem designed somehow to “scare them straight” so they stop cyberbullying.

I really like Rosalind’s 10 characteristics of a bad PSA or bullying-prevention video, especially her Nos. 4, 5 and 10 – please have a look. No. 7 – “Assumes that bullying is always one-way” – is important to keep in mind because, in digital media, bully and target can switch roles quickly and frequently in a pattern of action and reaction, and pile-ons can grow quickly because the conflict is public (the “invisible audiences” social media researcher danah boyd writes about), which is why it’s important to find out what’s really going on in a respectful, nonconfrontational way and not react quickly only to what’s on a computer or cellphone screen. Some of this is social rivalry, too – not just repeated aggression against a particularly vulnerable kid – and some of it is just conflict, where there is no real power imbalance, just an argument gone very wrong. And when we drill down to the actual behaviors meant when people refer to “cyberbullying” – the “mean or hurtful comments” or spreading of rumors turned up in Patchin and Hinduja’s research – would we see these as something new created by the Internet or as an epidemic? Certainly the Internet can amplify or distribute the behaviors, but the Internet’s not the basic problem, and focusing on it does nothing to solve that behavioral problem. In fact, by exposing these behaviors, the Internet is doing both children and adults (parents and schools) a service, by surfacing problems kids aren’t inclined to report and forcing us adults to think about what we’re modeling for our children and how to create and maintain cultures of respect in homes and schools. When you think about it, technology is forcing us to consider our humanity – maybe even giving us a chance to start an epidemic of civility, online and offline.

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