For the past several days I’ve taken a deep dive into the world of bullying and cyberbullying at two back-to-back conferences – the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) conference inWashington DC last week and, this week, the International Bullying Prevention Association (IBPA) conference in Nashville.
Even though I was bullied as a child and recently co-write the free booklet, A Parents Guide to Cyberbullying I’m certainly no expert, but after listening to expert after expert, I have learned a bit about the nature of bullying and what can be done to prevent it and deal with it once it occurs.
No simple answers
One thing is clear that there are no simple answers or silver bullets. Whether online or in-person, the nature of bullying depends on the people involved, the school and community climate and how others around them respond. And though there are some special aspects of cyberbullying that make it somewhat different, cyberbullying is still bullying and it has much more to do with the relationship between those involved than the particular technology that’s being used to carry it out. Experts also report that there is often a nexus between school bullying and cyberbullying. It might start in school and continue online or vice versa but it is often connected and it’s highly likely that the people involved in cyberbullying know each other from the physical world.
What youth say works
There are plenty of adult opinions about bullying but, in preparation for their recent book, Youth Voice Project, authors Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon conducted a survey of 13,177 students in 31 schools across 12 states to find out what young people thought about how to both prevent and recover from bullying. One thing they found is that “when a school works to build clear definitions of respectful behavior with meaningful student involvement, most students will uphold and follow those behavioral standards.”
In an interview, Stan Davis told me that if you’re the kid being mistreated, it doesn’t usually work to tell the person bullying you to stop. He cautioned adults to not ask kids to try to change other people’s behavior and to remind kids that its not their fault if they’re being bullied. Still, adults can play an essential role. “When adults listened and encouraged and showed it wasn’t going to last and it wasn’t their fault,” he said, “things would often get better.” He said there was a wide variance when it came to discipline. In schools that use harsher, more punitive more inconsistent discipline, things tend to get worse. It’s better to have clear and consistent and relatively minor – but certain — consequences than zero tolerance programs with severe consequences that are inconsistently meted out.
The most helpful things, he said, included “inclusion by other kids and encouragement from other kids.” He said that “kid after kid wrote us to say ‘my friends told me I didn’t deserve it and even though they kept doing it, it didn’t hurt me as much.’” In other words, even if we can’t prevent mean behavior, we can sometimes reduce its impact.
Many of the other speakers talked about resilience. How a community responds to bullying incidents can have a huge impact on how it affects people. Being supportive, reaching out to kids who have been bullied and letting them know that they are not alone can go a long way not only towards healing but towards prevention too by letting the people who bully know that it’s not popular or cool to engage in cruel or mean behavior.
Not an epidemic
A number of speakers stressed that bullying and cyberbullying– while a significant and long-term problem – is not an epidemic. On a research panel, David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center pointed out that there has actually been an overall decline in crimes against children, school violence and bullying over the past decade. At the FOSI conference Justin Patchin, director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said that cyberbullying is actually less prevalent than physical bullying and, in an interview at the IBPA conference, Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center said that, depending on the study and the age of the child, cyberbullying rates range from between 4% to about 20%. She said that what is sometimes called cyberbullying is often something else – “they’re more related to fighting or quarrels or someone being in a bad mood or many times someone dong something carelessly.” She said that many reported incidents turn out to be very minor. “the prevalence of mild things is high, which is sometimes why you see high statistics, but the prevalence of serious problems is not particularly high.”
I’ve reported before that we have a tendency to exaggerate the prevalence of bullying and cyberbulling and I’ve received criticism from some readers who feel that I am understating the problem. But as I heard over and over again this week, a one-size-fits-all analysis of the problem or the solutions is not helpful. It’s nuanced and it depends a great deal on individual factors and group dynamics. But – based on bullying prevention research by Wesley Perkins and David Craig of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, we know that there is a link between the perception of the problem and the extent of the problem. If students feel that bullying is the “norm,” they are more likely to engage in it. But if they learn (as is almost always the case) that the vast majority of kids are not cruel or mean, then they’re more likely to follow the norm and less likely to be cruel and mean.
If 15% of the kids in your school have bullied others, that’s a bad thing. But rather than emphasize the bad, turn the numbers around to report that 85% of kids don’t bully. That’s a number worth emulating and increasing.