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Tech likely not the main problem in cyberbullying: Breakthrough study

There are some groundbreaking takeaways (and many more insights) in new research from the University of New Hampshire – “The Role of Technology in Peer Harassment: Does It Amplify Harm for Youth?” – and my headline is one of them. Another one is the answer to the question posed in the authors’ headline: “no,” their data indicates. But before going any further with the takeaways, a bit about the study first:

ccrc2Just published in the journal Psychology of Violence, the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 791 young people aged 10-20. Three things make the research itself groundbreaking: 1) unlike most studies about social aggression among youth, it zoomed in on the incidents rather than the people involved; 2) it compared three types of incidents: in-person, digital and mixed (both in-person and online/on phones); and 3) it’s the first to test a theory that has widely been treated as fact, that digital harassment is worse than the in-person kind (because, the theory goes, it can be 24/7 and distributed instantly and widely). The study also builds on the CCRC’s work to define “bullying” and treats it, with its unique characteristics of repetition and power imbalance, as a subset of peer victimization or harassment (see this about that).

The top 4 takeaways are important for parents and educators to know:

  1. Fresh data: About a third (34%) of youth had experienced harassment of some kind over the previous year, 54% of incidents involved no technology, 15% involved only technology and 31% involved both technology and in-person elements.
  2. The negative emotional impact of digital harassment is “significantly lower” than that of the in-person kind – contrary to that theory I mentioned above. “Compared with in-person incidents, technology-only incidents were less likely to involve multiple episodes and power imbalances,” the authors write, adding: “They were seen by victims as easier to stop and had significantly less emotional impact.” So, no, the idea that tech amplifies harm, is not supported by this data. But the second part of this finding is equally important: that the emotional impact of in-person harassment is significantly lower than that of mixed incidents (those that involve both digital and in-person harassment). However…
  3. The digital part is not likely the main problem in mixed (digital and in-person) harassment incidents, the kind that the study found causes the most distress. “It appears likely that it is less something inherent about the technology itself, and more something about the relational nature of mixed harassment incidents that make them so upsetting,” the authors write, adding that the data suggest that mixed incidents “are marked by more intense, personal, and complex negative interactions that have high emotional salience for those involved.” So because the root of the problem is social rather than technological…
  4. Social literacy is needed to grow safety in social media: “Our research suggests that those seeking to prevent the most detrimental forms of peer harassment might focus less on cyberbullying per se and instead [consider] prevention programs that teach youth to handle negative feelings and to de-escalate tensions,” the authors write. “These skills are the focus of a growing number of social emotional learning programs and comprehensive school-based bullying prevention programs that are increasing in sophistication.” [This is confirming – see my 2013 blog post “All kids deserve the safety & other benefits of social-emotional learning.”]

There are many more important insights from the study. Here are some especially interesting ones:

Age: Young people reporting in-person-only incidents were significantly younger than those in the other two categories (digital-only and mixed), and more likely to be boys aged 10-12.
Gender: In-person-only incidents are experienced more by boys (younger ones, as mentioned just above); digital-only is experienced equally by boys and girls, and more so among older teens; mixed incidents were more common among girls.
Race & ethnicity: “No significant differences were evident across groups in terms of race and ethnicity, family structure, and socioeconomic status,” the authors report.
The relational piece: Indicating that knowing the perpetrator may increase the hurt felt, the researchers found that “perpetrators in technology-only incidents were less likely than those in in-person incidents to be a schoolmate or acquaintance or a friend or dating partner (or ex). At the same time, perpetrators in mixed episodes [the kind that this study found causes the greatest distress] were more likely than those in technology-only episodes to be a schoolmate or acquaintance or a friend or dating partner (or ex).
Power imbalance: 88% of all harassment incidents involved a physical or social power imbalance when the incident began (part of the definition of “bullying”) – 69% a social power imbalance, 54% a physical power imbalance, some incidents obviously involving both. Both digital-only incidents and mixed (digital and in-person) incidents were less likely than in-person-only ones to involve a social power differential.
Repetition (another element of the commonly accepted definition of bullying and cyberbullying): “41% of incidents involved a series of events perpetrated by the same person or group; 22% lasted for a month or longer; 31% resulted in injury to the victim.”
Characteristics of the 3 categories: Mixed (digital and in-person) incidents tend to fit the definition of “cyberbullying,” with the elements of repetition and power imbalance, more than purely digital ones. Mixed were more likely than digital-only ones to “involve perpetrators who knew embarrassing things about the victim, happen a series of times, last for one month or longer, involve physical injury, and start out as joking before becoming more serious. Technology-only incidents were less likely than in-person-only ones to involve a social power differential, be repetitive or cause injury. Mixed incidents were more likely than in-person-only ones to involve a perpetrator who was known to be on drugs or alcohol or who knew embarrassing information about the victim.
Location: 66% of all incidents occurred at school, but digital-only and mixed incidents were more likely to occur at home.
Texting the top tool: Among digital-only and mixed incidents, 65% involved text messaging and 53% a social media service. Mixed incidents were more likely than digital-only incidents to involve text messaging.
Type of harassment: “24% involved some bias component (i.e., comments about the victims’ sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity); 13% had a sexual aspect. About half (53%) included “mutual harassment” (perpetrator and target harassing each other, what some researchers call “bully-victims”); “5% of victims admitted to initiating the harassing exchange.”
Impacts: Across all three categories of incidents, “34% [of victims] were very or extremely upset; 46% were very/extremely angry; 22% were very/extremely afraid, worried (24%), sad (28%), or felt like they could not trust people (25%); and 9% felt very/extremely unsafe as a result of what happened.” For digital-only, “youth were less likely than those experiencing in-person [harassment] to be very/extremely upset, afraid, or unsafe.” For mixed harassment, youth were more likely than those who’d experienced either digital-only and in-person-only “to feel very/ extremely angry or like they could not trust people. They were also more likely than youth experiencing technology-only episodes to feel upset, afraid, worried, sad, and unsafe.
Witnesses & perpetrators: The theory that digital harassment “has features that amplify emotional impact (e.g., large numbers of witnesses, multiple perpetrators, an inability to control or stop the harassment, difficulty getting away) was not supported by our study,” the authors write. “Some of these features were not even markers of harassment that only occurred through technology.” As for all three categories of harassment they looked at, only 6% of the incidents – including digital-only and mixed – were witnessed by 51 or more people. It’s encouraging to know, too, that in 59% of harassing incidents overall, the youth surveyed “felt they could get away from the situation quickly.”
Zooming in on purely digital harassment, the CCRC researchers concluded that, “although technology-only incidents were more likely to involve large numbers of witnesses, they were least likely to involve multiple perpetrators. Youth were more likely to feel like they could stop what was happening. And technology-only harassment incidents were less likely to be repeated and more likely to be of short duration compared with incidents that involved only in-person harassment.”
Upsides possible, don’t forget: Interestingly, the authors point out that the reverse of the technology amplification theory is more likely true, based on their data: that tech “could lessen rather than amplify the negative emotional impact of harassment.… For example, negative comments online could have a less powerful effect than those delivered in person because targets have more time to think about how to respond. With more witnesses, there might be a greater level of peer support for victims that may not be available when harassment happens in more private circumstances. The Internet also might inhibit the most negative types of peer aggressive behavior because it provides visibility and evidence of harassment that can be documented.”

The bottom line: The theory that technology amplifies harm is “not supported” by the data, the authors write. “The average total emotional impact score was lowest for technology-only incidents and highest for mixed incidents,” which “shared many features with in-person harassment.” So whether we’re parenting, teaching digital literacy, revamping school policy or investigating an incident, we’ll be able to do it with greater intelligence and have more credibility with our intended beneficiaries if we base our efforts on evidence rather than assumptions about technology’s impact on them.

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