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What is bullying & what can be done about it: Lit review

What a project and what a service to anybody trying to get a handle on a long-standing social problem! I’m referring to the recently released “Bullying in a Networked Era: A Literature Review” of more than 150 surveys, articles and other references from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, the latest research on bullying all in one place.

Although bullying is by no means merely a youth problem – the Workplace Bullying Institute says 35% of the US workforce reports being bullied at work, while Berkman arrived at 20-35% for youth involvement in bullying – school-based bullying has certainly been top of mind this past month, “National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month.” So what better way to wrap up the month than with greater understanding. I’ll let you get the full details in the seven authors’ lit review designed “to ‘translate’ scholarly research for a concerned public audience, which may include but is not limited to parents, caregivers, educators, and practitioners.”

There’s a mother lode of insights in this 50+-page report, so I’ll offer you just a sampler:

  • Still more bullying offline. The lit review echoed other research released this fall showing that offline bullying (a term used interchangeably with “traditional bullying”) “is more prevalent than online bullying” (used interchangeably with “cyberbullying”).
  • Online bullying not that different. Cyberbullying and offline bullying (physical, verbal, and relational) “are more similar than different,” which suggests to me that there are similar categories of peer victimization online and on phones, where “verbal” becomes textual and where social pecking orders and drama have their outward expression as well.
  • Most common types of bullying: verbal and relational. “When combining reported rates of perpetration and victimization, the prevalence of bullying was 20.8% for physical, 53.6% for verbal, 51.4% for relational, and 13.6% for cyber.”
  • Gender: “Research remains inconclusive about the role gender plays in youths’ involvement in cyberbullying” but “boys appear to be more involved in all bully-status groups offline (bully, victim, bully-victim) than girls.
  • Offline bullying outgrown sooner? “Offline bullying appears to peak during middle school, whereas online bullying tends to peak during high school.”
  • Anonymity not augmented by tech: “ICTs are not uniquely capable of enabling anonymous bullying; school environments can do so as well. In a national survey of over 1,000 12-17, 12% who reported being bullied at school said they did not ‘know’ their bully, as did 22% of those who report being bullied on the way to and from school.”
  • Anonymity not that big a factor – or not as prevalent online as we may have thought. A survey of more than 1,400 12-to-17-year-olds showed that “73% of participants who were victims of cyberbullying knew the identity of their bully.” This is interesting in light of a recent news story out of Canada, “Cyber-bullies cower behind fists of anonymity,” but that was more about trolling than cyberbullying.
  • Disinhibition & retaliation: Much has been said about how online anonymity makes it easier to be cruel. What we don’t hear a much about is that it makes it easier to retaliate. “Some studies have pointed to a ‘blurring’ of the roles of bully and victim online as indication that online aggression may have new qualities that differentiate it from traditional bullying. For example, it appears that victims of online bullying commonly retaliate against their bullies. As with anonymity and repetition, however, retaliation has been and continues to be a factor in offline bullying.”
  • The vital role of perception: “Simply regarding bullying to be more common and accepted within a school than it really is … can be associated with more perpetration of bullying acts,” the social norms research finds. So people need to know the facts (see this).
  • Reporting’s on the rise: “Youth disclosure of online harassment incidents to parents increased from 31% in 2005 to 40% in 2010 and disclosure to school staff increased from 2% in 2005 to 12% in 2010.
  • What increases reporting: “Students’ perceptions that teachers care about them, believe in them, and treat them fairly and respectfully (e.g., perceptions of teachers’ support) may encourage students to seek help and ‘be instrumental in increasing school safety’.”

What can be done?

  • Schools need to balance discipline with support. “‘Zero-tolerance’ policies implemented on the school and district level have not been effective at reducing offline bullying (or other forms of school-based violence); similarly, highly punitive policies have not been very effective at reducing online bullying. Research has even suggested that highly punitive policies can have a negative impact on individual youth as well as the overall school climate.
  • “Structure + support”: “School that provided both ‘structure’ and ‘support’ (i.e., consistent enforcement of school discipline and available, caring adults) predicted both lower reported rates of bullying as well as lower perceived rates of bullying.
  • Social literacy development is key: “Curricula that focus on social-emotional learning (SEL) can play a critical role in schools’ bullying prevention efforts, for students of all ages. SEL curricula seek to foster several social and emotional skills. Notably, they have been found to improve behaviors and perceptions related to bullying, as well as academic performance.”
  • “Whole-school” lukewarm, “school climate” hot: “’Whole-school’ programs … have a mixed record of success; evaluations point to the importance of effective implementation…. Educators, school administrators, and school staff should aim to cultivate a school climate that makes students feel connected to and supported by their school; not doing so may increase the likelihood of students’ involvement in bullying.

Parenting’s critical role

  • The behaviors parents model: “Within the family or home, parents model a range of behaviors. Modeling certain negative behaviors, such as violence, are associated with children’s increased risk of involvement. Modeling positive behaviors, such as helping with homework, may reduce children’s risk of involvement.”
  • Family communication essential: “A nationally representative study of 11,033 students in the 6th-10th grades found that among Hispanics, African Americans, and Whites, students who reported that they could not communicate easily with their parents were more likely to be involved in bullying, across multiple roles.
  • Parent involvement in kids’ school life: “Among African Americans and Whites, students’ reports of parental involvement in school (i.e., parents’ help with homework or communication with teachers) were associated with lower involvement in bullying.”
  • Where parents don’t help: A national study found that one of the greatest challenges to the success of bullying-prevention programs in schools was “parents’ and other adults’ beliefs that bullying is not a major concern, either because they believed it to be rare or because they considered bullying a ‘rite of passage.”

This was a review of what’s happening online as well as offline, but I was thankful that the document’s seven authors at least concluded with a point that needs to move up front in the public discourse about youth and digital technologies: that the subject of bullying mustn’t distract us from all the positive ways young people are engaging with their world through digital media. They write:

“Research shows little reason for online bullying to disproportionately cloud our understanding of teens’ social interactions online. Teens’ activities online can produce positive experiences, including exposure to diverse perspectives, which is helpful for positive social and intellectual growth.” So what they suggest to us is that, “when cultivating a school, home, or community environment, educators, parents, and other adults can learn of ways to leverage or encourage the development of youths’ positive social interactions online.”

That last point reminds me of an important finding of a 2008 Internet safety task force I served on – that a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments are better predictors of online risk than any technology a child uses. In other words, what’s going on in our heads and in our everyday lives has a whole lot to do with how well things are going online.

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