There is no better source on cyberbullying than the Cyberbullying Research Center, at least in the US. And this month, National Bullying Prevention Month in the US, CRC, in partnership with Cartoon Network, released data on a whole new group of kids: 9-to-12-year-olds.
It may surprise you that we know very little about tweens’ experiences with cyberbullying. But that’s because of COPPA, the Children’s Online Protection Act, which in effect (not technically) created a “minimum age” for youth “social networking.” So research, not very helpfully, has focused largely on young people aged 13+.
That just changed, to the credit of these research partners. Profs. Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja of the CRC surveyed a “nationally representative sample of 1,034 tweens (9-to-12-year-olds).” Here are my highlights from their top takeaways, with a few thoughts of my own from following CRC’s and other researchers’ findings through the years….
Low numbers compared to teens
First and foremost, it’s good to know that the numbers, though always concerning, are more instructive than alarming. Only 14.5% of tweens said they’d been cyberbullied, while a great many more, half, of them said they’d been bullied at school, according to Cartoon Network’s report on the survey. And the number in this age group who’ve experienced cyberbullying is significantly lower than for teens, 36.5% of whom had been cyberbullied, according to the CRC’s latest data on teens (Dr. Patchin did tell me they put the tweens survey questions a bit differently). The tweens-to-teens discrepancy probably has something to do with the fact that younger kids socialize online less, Patchin agreed.
“I also think it relates to the developmental stage: Tweens are generally still more bonded to parents, whereas teens are more influenced by peers,” he told me, which suggests parents can move the numbers down even further by seeing that cyberbullying is more about how people treat each other than about technology. Working with our kids on the former long before they use tech can have real impact.
Other top takeaways
- Cyberbullying’s impacts: Of the 14.5% of tweens who had experienced cyberbullying, “nearly 70% said it affected their feelings about themselves, about one-third said it affected their friendships,” 13% their physical health and 6.5% their schoolwork, the CRC found. I think what we’re seeing is that this is the age group where adults can have the most positive influence. I’m remembering University of North Carolina Prof. Dorothy Espelage reporting how important it is to address antisocial behavior early. “Bullying [in elementary school] leads to homophobic name-calling,” which is prevalent in middle school, she reported, which “predicts sexual harassment perpetration in middle school” and high school, which predicts dating violence in high school and then colleges and universities.
- Demographics: Boys are more likely to cyberbully than girls, the survey showed, “but there were no other differences based on gender.” Not surprisingly, 9-year-olds are cyberbullied less and are less likely to witness it than older tweens: 9.5% vs. 16% and 6.7% vs. 18%, respectively.
- How much various strategies helped: “Blocking the person who was behaving badly worked for 60%; over half said telling a parent helped”; ignoring the person (42.8%); and reporting in the app and just taking a break from the device were neck and neck (29.8% and 29.6%), respectively. Only 11.8% said it helped to report the cyberbullying to the school. What we found in piloting a social media helpline for schools is that schools helped most when they understood it was about peer relations, not tech, and when they prioritized restorative over punitive responses (e.g., assistant principals working with the students involved to resolve the relational issues).
- “Tweens are helpers,” the researchers found (kudos to them for highlighting this important fact). Big numbers here: “Nearly two-thirds of tweens said they tried to help someone who was being mistreated online,” and “30% said they had done that many times.” This brings to mind a 2015 study of 10-to-20-year-olds by researchers at the University of New Hampshire, finding that, “in about 70% of harassment and bullying cases, victims report that a bystander tried to make them feel better.”
- Tweens’ tech: 90% of US tweens use social media and gaming apps (see the chart for how much and which ones). According to Cartoon Network’s report on the survey, “Smartphone ownership explodes in the tween years,” going from 21% of 9-year-olds to 68% of 12-year-olds. Overall, almost one-third of US tweens have their own laptop, 40% their own smartphone and over half their own tablet. Only 13% don’t have any of those devices.
Tips for parents & educators
The sooner we start talking with our children about all things social the better. This is so not just about cyberbullying or how we treat each other online. It’s about how we are with each other anywhere – at home, at school, in a game online or on the field, in an app or in the ‘hood, right? No differences. I strongly suspect there isn’t a single parent or teacher reading this who didn’t start working on this with their children when they were very little. All of that is the best possible foundation for playing and socializing – just add digital. It can be part of conversations about “how the people in our family treat others” (see this about the power of a strong family narrative around “who we are as a family,” online and offline).
But if your child does come to you about being harassed or bullied online, here are some tips for that, inspired in part by a section about this in the Cartoon Network report:
- Make sure they’re safe (e.g., no one’s threatening physical harm).
- Support them unconditionally.
- Listen (to understand them and the situation) more than talk.
- Model respect – validate their feelings and experience. You may need to get other perspectives, but acknowledge their truth in the situation too.
- Work together – see if they can take the lead in figuring out what to do to ease the helplessness and loss of control often associated with experiencing (and even witnessing) bullying.
- Don’t make things worse for them (e.g., by summarily calling the aggressor’s parent or demanding a meeting with the school principal without hearing any concerns your child might have about those possibilities).
About that “work together” point: One thing I’ve learned from the research, specifically findings by Prof. Ian Rivers in the UK, is that the powerlessness, or helplessness, that young people feel when they experience or even witness bullying is “the single most significant predictor of suicide risk” and mental health problems. The great need, especially in a time of rising depression and anxiety among youth, is to support our children’s agency – their self-confidence and capacity to change things for the better – the exact opposite of the helplessness that comes from bullying. Well, that and encouraging kindness toward self and others.
These tips are informed by the work of many great educators, including the authors of this report. They include Rosalind Wiseman of Cultures of Dignity, Patricia Agatston, PhD, the social-emotional learning experts at Committee for Children and many others.
- An inspiring story of how one mother and child worked through bullying in school – and then the child took healing to the next level (to say the least)!
- Other help for kids dealing with cyberbullying (and for their helpers)
- About somewhat surprising early research findings on how kids and parents dealt with the “minimum age” for youth online socializing established by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act: “Kids lying to Facebook, not their parents: Study”
- The Cyberbullying Research Center’s latest data on cyberbullying among teens (12-to-17-year-olds, specifically)
- The Cartoon Network’s report on the survey
- “Trauma, bullying and cyberbullying” by Dr. Sameer Hinduja at the CRC
- “Bullying & Cyberbullying: The Connection to Delinquency” by Dr. Justin Patchin at the CRC (and more about the tech tweens use than social negativity, see also his “Tween social media and gaming in 2020”)