A new study from the Pew Internet Project confirms yet again that no particular demographic has a monopoly on online harassment and bullying, certainly not kids and teens. “Fully 73% of adult Internet users have seen someone being harassed in some way online and 40% have personally experienced it,” Pew reports – and, astoundingly, 70% of the youngest adults (18-24-year-olds)!
Compare just that 40% of all adults who’d experienced digital harassment to the percentage of youth who have. “On average, about 25% of the students who have been a part of our last 8 studies have said they have been the victim of cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime,” reports the Cyberbullying Research Center.
According to the latest data from the US Centers for Disease Controls, 14.8% of teens surveyed said they’d been cyberbullied in the past 12 months.
Where does anti-social behavior come from?
Not children. Few are born with antisocial tendencies, according to behavioral geneticist David Lykken. Environmental conditions and trauma in early childhood have a lot to do with developing bullying behaviors. In other words, “those who hurt are hurting,” and that hurt comes first from witnessing or being hurt by the adults around a child. The 2005 book The Sociopath Next Door by Harvard Medical School psychologist Martha Stout shows that 4% of people inherit sociopathy, but few in that cohort come to exhibit violent behavior.
In fact, young people may be more capable of changing their behavior than adults are, because they’re works in progress – learning on all cylinders. A 2013 study in the journal Child Development found that “an intervention designed to teach adolescents that people have the potential for change could take the edge off these experiences and lead to less aggressive retaliation and more prosocial behavior. Moreover, this occurred in an age group and in a context believed by some to be relatively impervious to reform—an urban, diverse public high school with substantial levels of conflict.”
Pro-social skills for online, offline life
This study and the Pew data suggest how much our children, our schools, our media environment and our society (all societies, actually) would benefit from providing universal training in social-emotional skills from early childhood and at least through middle school, as the social part of child development intensifies. Social-emotional learning is greatly needed in school because not all children can get it at home, and – SEL educators, please note – the Pew study shows how much it needs to embrace cyberspace!
The Child Development study’s authors concluded that, “going forward, our society would do well to incorporate a message of malleability into our conversations about the future prospects of both aggressive and victimized adolescents in this age group.”
That’s the very least we should do: send children and adults the message that cruel behavior can be unlearned and replaced with pro-social behavior. Isn’t it time – and fundamentally respectful – to give our kids a little more credit for all the kindness and respect they do show and put bullying by kids in context? As I wrote after the Federal Bullying Prevention conference in Washington this past August, we need to encourage and empower our children with the knowledge that most kids don’t bully, that bullying is not normative – that kindness actually is.
“Children are wired for good,” said Dr. Marc Brackett of Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence at the conference. They deserve to hear that more often!
- About the book Confessions of a Sociopath (2013): blog post by the author M.E. Thomas herself, and interview with her on NPR and an article at TheDailyBeast.com
- WorkplaceBullying.org’s 2014 survey found that 27% of adults have experienced bullying at work.
- NBC News’s coverage of the Pew study
- “Powerful lessons for prevention bullying and cyberbullying”
- “All kids deserve the safety & other benefits of social-emotional learning”
- K-12 instruction in the “digital-age literacies” is among the six recommendations of the Aspen Task Force on Learning & the Internet