Shades of Grey: Rethinking cyberbullying interventions

Just a short while ago, concern with online predators was so dominant that anyone trying to draw attention to the problem of cyberbullying felt like a voice in the wilderness. In the last few years, though, new research has not only provided a more realistic picture of the risks of online sexual solicitation; but has also raised awareness on the severity of cyberbullying. Unfortunately, all of the media attention that is now focused on cyberbullying runs the risk of making public perceptions on this issue as narrow and inaccurate as they were towards online predation.

One problem is that many of the current cyberbullying interventions take the form of public awareness campaigns or school assemblies that simply tell youth not to be cyber- bullies. Not only is this ineffective – a 2008 study showed that interventions of this type fail to change bullying behaviour – but this top-down approach may well make things worse by reducing the content to a simplistic “just say no” message, that youth simply tune out as they generally do when adults talk at them.

Another communication issue is that the term “cyberbullying” has little or no resonance to youth. As danah boyd has noted, youth – teens in particular – typically define cyberbullying in such a way as to exclude anything they do. Instead, what adults may consider cyberbullying they describe as getting into fights, “starting something” or simply “drama”; as one commenter on boyd's blog put it, “all these teachers and counselors talk to us about bullying, and no one really listens, because they all talk about it like we go out of our way to cause trouble but it's really just how high school works.” As a result, interventions that use that language, or ignore the complicated nature of bullying relationships, are bound to fail.

It's not just youth that define bullying too narrowly, though. There are only two basic narratives in news stories on the topic: either a single bully harassing a helpless target or a large group turning against a single person. This is the mirror image of teenagers' views of cyberbullying, in that both define bullying exclusively as a situation where the target is helpless. What's becoming clear, though, is that cyberbullying does not always involve this kind of power dynamic – and that, in many cases, the different participants may have quite different views of whether or not bullying is going on.

A dramatic example of this is the Web site Formspring. This is a site that allows users to send each other anonymous questions, which they may choose to answer or not; questions that are answered are posted for public view. Not surprisingly, when teenagers got hold of it the questions often became abusive, from leading questions about others such as “Don't you hate Kristen?” to simple harassment such as “You're fat.” (There are no grammar police checking to see if these are actual questions.) What has puzzled observers is that since only questions that are answered are shown publicly, why were the recipients of these “questions” answering them? For that matter, given how quickly Formspring gained a reputation as a venue for bullying, why were youth going there at all?

Those questions have only become harder to answer with the recent revelation that many of these abusive questions had been written by the same people who responded to them. Essentially, these youth are not only bullying themselves in public but inviting others to bully them. danah boyd, in her blog post on the topic, suggests a number of possible explanations for this: that it may be a cry for help, a desire to look cool (by making it look as though people are jealous of you) or to get friends to rally around you. It's also possible that this is a kind of imaginative social play, a desire to inject some drama into one's online social life (recall that “drama” is one of the words teens often use to describe what others might see as bullying.) Another possibility is that it's done to pre-empt bullying by others, to show that you're a “good sport”: according to a recent study one-third of youth respond to bullying by making a joke about it and three-quarters pretended it didn't bother them. Finally, this may be a perverse result of the media attention recently paid to cyberbullying: because of the black-and-white way in which bullying portrayed, making yourself seem like a victim of it, without suffering the actual consequences, places you firmly on the high ground.

All of those possible reasons relate, in some way or another, to power and status, and they demonstrate just how much more complicated bullying is than the simple “bully and victim” narrative. It's not at all uncommon, for example, for someone to be the aggressor in one relationship and the target in another, or for victims to try to retaliate against their harassers (as one commenter to boyd's blog put it, “they can break out bodies, but we can break everything else, one keystroke at a time.”). But differences in power and status make a huge difference in how bullying is experienced: if a low-status girl is aggressive towards a high-status girl, it's likely to be perceived as jealousy. Moreover, high-status youth tend to have more developed “social intelligence,” which means that they are able to leverage social structures to their advantage. In classroom bullying, for instance, high-status youth often keep their bullying “under the radar” until the target retaliates – at which point she is usually the one punished. In a painful irony, cyber-bullies often use mechanisms designed to fight bullying as a tool for bullying by threatening to “report” their targets (Sharon Duke Estroff describes this happening on Club Penguin in her essay “Undercover in a Kids' Online World”) and have them temporarily or permanently banned from an online venue.

This last example shows the folly of “zero tolerance” approaches to cyberbullying: there are simply too many different forms, factors and contexts for one size to fit all. At the same time, we are failing our children if we simply throw up our hands and say “kids will be kids” or “there will always be bullying.” While it's certainly unlikely that bullying will ever be stamped out entirely, many of the factors that make it more common or severe can be addressed. Probably the most important is the development of empathy. A Canadian program, Roots of Empathy, has had success developing empathy in children between kindergarten and Grade 7 by bringing infants into classrooms and inviting students to try to see the world from the baby's perspective.

The flipside of developing empathy is creating a culture where bullying is not seen as the norm – or rather, where not bullying is seen as the norm. This is different from a “zero tolerance” policy because it's not imposing one-size-fits-all punishments from the top: instead, it's an example of what's called social norming, in which positive behaviours are reinforced by making members of a group aware of how common they are. In one example, middle schools in New Jersey found that students overestimated how common a variety of bullying behaviours were. By creating a series of posters that showed the actual frequency of these behaviours – with taglines such as “most Cooper Middle School students do not exclude someone from a group to make them feel bad” – they were able to change not only the perception of bullying but the frequency of bullying as well, as students came to feel that not bullying was a part of their shared social norms. As with Roots of Empathy, this intervention is successful in part because it is done early, before problematic behaviours have had a chance to become ingrained – and before children learn to tune out what we say.


MediaSmarts' lessons and resources on cyberbullying begin with Avatars and Identity, a Grade 5-6 lesson that teaches the importance of empathy when talking to others online, which is followed up by the Grade 7-8 lesson Promoting Ethical Behaviour Online, both part of the lesson series on cyberbullying which you can find on our Cyberbullying portal page