Social norms research: Exaggerating bullying could increase bullying

by Larry Magid

As I previously wrote, cyberbullying is a serious problem, but not an epidemic.  Yet, there continue to be widespread reports that bullying has reached epidemic proportions. This misinformation can actually have the unintended consequence of increasing bullying.

One study, from the Crimes Against Children Research Center, showed that bullying has actually decreased in recent years, and no credible studies have shown a significant recent increase.  The recent EU Kids Online (PDF) study from the London School of Economics found that “across Europe, 6% of 9 to 16-year-old Internet users have been bullied online, and 3% confess to having bullied others.” In the U.S., the Cyberbullying Research Center found that 20% of  ”randomly selected 11 to 18 year old students in 2010 indicated they had been a victim at some point in their life.”

Even the most optimistic numbers indicate a problem but, I wouldn’t call this an “epidemic” of either bullying or cyberbullying as some articles and TV shows  have suggested.

Some well-meaning advocacy groups have contributed to the misinformation by releasing data suggesting that the majority (in some cases the vast majority) of youth have been bullied or have bullied others, though most surveys have put the percentages much lower — typically around 20%. One reason for the discrepancy in the research results is the lack of a uniformly agreed upon definition of bullying. Some studies ask whether “anyone has ever been mean to you” or has “hurt your feelings.” Based on this definition, I am surprised that the rate isn’t near 100%.

Bulling defined

A more widely accepted definition of bullying comes from the Olweus Bullying Prevention program which says that bullying has “three important components:”

1. Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
2. Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
3. Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.

Olweus is a widely respected bullying prevention program

When these components are used to determine incidents, the rate of bullying is substantially lower. Of course, you can argue with the definition, especially when it comes to online or so-called “cyberbullying,” because – online — a single act of bullying can be repeated over time and it’s harder to agree on the definition of an “imbalance of power,” where a person’s online “power,” influence or presence may have little or nothing to do with traditional means of obtaining power such as physical strength, appearance or popularity.

Social norms research shows  accurate reporting makes kids safer

Putting the bullying problem into its proper perspective doesn’t minimize it, but actually helps prevent it from getting worse. I know that may seem counterintuitive, but there is a lot of solid research that shows that if people overestimate anti-social or harmful behavior, they are more likely to engage in it themselves. In other words, reporting accurately about the rate of bullying actually makes kids  less likely to bully others. Besides, as my ConnectSafely.org co-director Anne Collier wrote in NetFamilyNews, “Kids deserve the truth about cyberbullying.”

Much of this research focuses on health related activities such as smoking, alcohol abuse and overeating, but there is also data on the impact of peer perceptions on bullying.

Overestimating contributes to the problem

paper (PDF) published in the April, 2011 edition of Group Processes Intergroup Relations, by H. Wesley Perkins, David W. Craig and Jessica M. Perkins,  shows that “variation in perceptions of the peer norm for bullying was significantly associated with personal bullying perpetration and attitudes.” As the authors pointed out, “decades of research in social psychology … have demonstrated the strong tendency of people to conform to peer norms as they look to others in their midst to help define the situation and give guidance on expected behaviors in the group or cultural setting.”

The authors also observed that “adolescents and young adults (incorrectly) tend to believe that risky or problem behaviors and attitudes are most common among peers and think protective responsible action is rare,” and that “these misperceptions then contribute to or exacerbate the problem behavior as more youth begin to support and engage in the behavior than would otherwise be the case if norms were accurately perceived.”

Source: Perkins, H. Wesley, David W. Craig, and Jessica M. Perkins. "Using Social Norms to Reduce Bullying: A Research Intervention in Five Middle Schools." Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 2011.

Big gap between perceived bullying vs. actual bullying Source: Perkins, H. Wesley, David W. Craig, and Jessica M. Perkins. "Using Social Norms to Reduce Bullying: A Research Intervention in Five Middle Schools." Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 2011

Bullying is not normal and it’s not OK

To put it simply, over-estimating bullying makes it seem like it’s common. And, so the reasoning goes, if it’s common, it must be normal and if it’s normal, it must be OK. Well, it’s not OK and, fortunately, it’s not normal.  And that’s exactly what anti-bullying programs need to emphasize.

Norms awareness campaigns

The authors of the study recommend that schools engage in awareness campaigns that emphasize that most kids don’t bully. In their paper, they give examples of positive media campaigns to help reinforce behaviors that are both positive and normal.

Social norms campaign emphasizes positive behavior (Source: Perkins, H. Wesley, David W. Craig, and Jessica M. Perkins. "Using Social Norms to Reduce Bullying: A Research Intervention in Five Middle Schools." Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 2011

Responsible media coverage

While media coverage about bullying can help raise awareness and lead to positive results, it’s important that it be accurate and reasonable. Coverage that exaggerates either the size of the problem or the likely outcomes does little to help and can actually hurt. It’s also important to realize that the impact of bullying can range from mildly annoying to extremely serious. And while it is true that bullying can be a contributing factor to some suicides, it’s also true that it’s rarely the only factor. What’s more, the vast majority of youth who are bullied are able to handle it without extreme reactions.

Parents, educators, government leaders, non-profits, the media, religious organizations and, of course, young people themselves need to step up our efforts to create a positive social climate but we must do so without resorting to histeria  and exaggeration. For more on bullying, visit the International Bullying Prevention Association.

P.S.

One of the responses to this article came from the mother of someone who works for a company that provides moderation services for “kids websites, online games, chat rooms, role play game groups, etc.” She pointed out that her daughter’s company deals with a lot of cases of bullying which prompted my ConnectSafely co-director, Anne Collier, to interview one of the leading authorities on child site moderation.  Anne concluded “not all the negative behavior we see in kids’ online games and virtual worlds is cyberbullying. In fact, very little of it is.” This post is worth a read.

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