Not Black and White: Understanding the Nuances of Cyberbullying

Matthew Johnson

How big a problem is cyberbullying? To judge by media coverage, which frequently focuses on the most sensational and extreme cases, it’s an epidemic, and schools and legislators have often responded with heavy-handed measures. Students, on the other hand, are more likely to say that cyberbullying is less of an issue than adults perceive it to be – though even they, in many cases, overestimate how common it actually is. MediaSmarts’ report Cyberbullying: Dealing with Online Meanness, Cruelty and Threats, the third in a series of reports based on data from our Young Canadians in a Wired World survey, suggests that so far as Canadian youth are concerned the answer is somewhere in between, presenting a portrait of online conflict that demands more nuanced, contextualized and evidence-based responses.

One issue in studying cyberbullying is the difference between how adults and youth define it: while schools and governments tend towards a broader definition – resulting in “zero-tolerance” policies in schools that impose the same penalties for name-calling as for threats or persistent harassment – teens, conversely, are more likely to define it as being anything other than what they do themselves. For this reason, the survey avoided the term “cyberbullying,” choosing instead to ask students whether they had done anything mean or cruel to someone online or had something mean or cruel done to them (“meanness”) and whether they had threatened anyone or had been threatened by anyone online. The results show that a significant minority of students have experienced both meanness and threats online: just over a third say that someone has said something mean or cruel to them, and just under a third say that someone has threatened them online by saying something like “I’m going to get you” or “You’re going to get it.”

Roughly a quarter of students say that they have engaged in online meanness, compared to just one in ten who say they have threatened someone else. This may be because unlike threats, meanness is fairly often reciprocal: there is a significant overlap between students who have engaged in online meanness and those who have experienced it, and some of the more common reasons students give for being mean to someone – such as because “the person said something mean and cruel about me first” (48%), “the person said something mean about my friend first” (32%) and “I wanted to get even with the person for another reason” (22%) – suggest that rather than fitting the traditional model of a target and perpetrator, online meanness often takes place within a complex relationship with two or more participants.

The most common reason given for online meanness is “I was just joking around,” which may support the sentiment often expressed by youth that much of what adults perceive to be “bullying” is actually harmless teasing. Participants in our 2012 focus groups Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Talking to Youth and Parents About Life Online gave us several examples of this phenomenon in action, and in this study three-quarters of students agreed with the statement that “sometimes parents or teachers call it bullying when kids are really just joking around” – and, indeed, just 30 percent of students who have experienced online meanness or cruelty (11 percent of all students surveyed) say this was “often” or “sometimes” a serious problem.

At the same time, there’s evidence that students may see what they are doing as “just joking” while being blind to how it hurts others. Research has shown that being a member of a disadvantaged or minority group makes youth more likely to experience online threats and meanness. Even when online conflict is reciprocal, if one of the people involved is more vulnerable it can easily lead to situations seen as “just joking around” by one and much more seriously by the other. Moreover, as the high frequency of “getting even” motivations show, it’s not at all difficult for something that’s intended as just a joke, or seen as everyday “drama,” to escalate into serious conflict. Students’ preferred strategies change depending on whether or not earlier efforts have succeeded in resolving the problem: many students are not bothered by single incidents of online meanness – or even threats – but when that online conflict persists it can quickly become much more serious.

There are significant differences in how boys and girls experience online conflict. Girls are more likely than boys to experience online meanness and to say that it was a serious problem; boys are more likely than girls to experience threats but are also less likely to say that either threats or meanness were a serious problem. Girls who engage in online meanness are substantially more likely to post or share an embarrassing photo or video. (Contrary to stereotypes, there is no significant difference between the number of girls and boys who spread rumours.) Boys, on the other hand, are significantly more likely to harass someone sexually, to make fun of someone’s race, religion or ethnicity, or – especially – to harass someone in an online game. For boys, gaming appears to be a major focus of online conflict: it would seem that they consider a certain amount of online meanness to be just “part of the game” – though that doesn’t mean that more vulnerable students can’t be hurt by it.

The participants in our 2012 Young Canadians in a Wired World focus groups largely characterized boys’ online conflict as “pranking” or “trolling,” and our findings bear this out: more boys than girls say they engage in online meanness because they are “just joking around” and boys are more than twice as likely to say that they do it because they are bored. Similarly, girls’ greater likelihood of engaging in online meanness because someone had said or done something mean to them or to a friend connects with the focus groups’ view of girls’ online conflict as “drama.” Surprisingly though, girls are somewhat more likely to say they engage in online meanness because they don’t like the person and significantly more likely to say they do it simply because they were angry. This may be because the platforms where girls’ online conflict often takes place, such as texts and social networks, are particularly likely to act as “empathy traps”, where many of the things that trigger empathy in us – a person’s tone of voice, their body language, and their facial expression – are absent. There is, fortunately, some reason to believe that students may be at least somewhat aware of this issue, given their stated preference for face-to-face confrontation rather than digital communications to deal with conflict.

There is no easy answer to the question of how big a problem cyberbullying is. Some forms may be more common but less severe; some youth may be more at risk of experiencing it and others more at risk of being hurt by it. What may be a more useful question is how we should respond to it, and the data from our Young Canadians in a Wired World survey provides some useful guidance. The role of parents remains an extremely important one: though they are less popular as a source of help with older students, they remain significant throughout high school. As well, household rules about treating others with respect online have a strong relationship with students’ behaviour: students without a rule at home are half again as likely to engage in online meanness as those who have such a rule, and those with no rules about respecting others online are more than twice as likely to make threats.

When it comes to schools the picture is more complicated. Almost two-thirds of students say their school has a rule relating to cyberbullying; of these, three-quarters say the rules were “often” or “sometimes” helpful. This does not, however, seem to translate into actual effects on students’ behaviour: unlike with household rules, there is almost no correlation between the presence of school rules and whether or not a student has engaged in or experienced either meanness or threats online. Perhaps because of this, students who have personal experience with online threats or meanness are much less likely to feel that school rules are helpful.

Similarly, while teachers rank first as a source of information about cyberbullying, they are consistently unpopular as a source of help, ranking almost last as a first choice and never rising past the middle rank even as a third choice. Students in our Young Canadians in a Wired World focus groups told us that they were generally reluctant to involve teachers or school administration in situations of online conflict because they feared losing control of the situation, often because teachers are bound by zero-tolerance policies: our data not only confirms this but shows that it remains true even in the most extreme cases.  

For policymakers, both at the school level and above, these findings clearly show that zero-tolerance and one-size-fits-all approaches to dealing with online conflict are not only going to be unsuccessful, but can be actively harmful as they prevent students from turning to what should be one of their main sources of help and support. Instead of a greater emphasis on punishment and criminalization, we should be encouraging empathy in youth and teaching them to avoid the “empathy traps” of digital communication, providing them with effective tools for managing their emotions and dealing with online conflict, and promoting awareness of the power of parents to teach their children to treat others with respect.

Future reports based on the Young Canadians in a Wired World student survey data will look at: digital literacy in the classroom and in the home, offensive content, online relationships and sexting.

Click here to read the full report:

Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Cyberbullying: Dealing with Online Meanness, Cruelty and Threats was made possible by financial contributions from Canadian Internet Registration Authority, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and The Alberta Teachers’ Association.