Researchers dispel myths about cyberbullying

by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

Michele Ybarra

A lot has been written about cyberbullying and I’ve seen some articles claiming that cyberbullying is more prevalent and more severe than in-person bullying. Some even refer to it as an “epidemic.”

But, in a presentation at the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) conference in Washington last week, a leading researcher on youth risk reported that the popular belief is actually a misconception. Compared to that bullying that takes place at school and other in-person venues, online bullying is both less prevalent and less distressing.

Listen to Larry’s CBS News Tech Talk segment with Michele Ybarra

Michele Ybarra, president of the Center for Innovative Public Health, says 17 percent of youth have reported online bullying compared to 39 percent who have experienced it “in person.” Ten percent have been bullied by phone, according to Ybarra, while 14 percent have experienced bullying via text messaging.

And despite the concerns that cyberbullying can follow kids home and haunt them via their phones and on their computers, Ybarra’s research found that kids who were bullied in school were more than twice as likely (38 percent vs. 15 percent) to report that they were very or extremely upset about the incident.

Ybarra’s presentation illustrated just how prevalent technology is among teens. For 12-17 year-olds, 95 percent are online, 77 percent have a cell phone, 23 percent have a smartphone, 63 percent text daily and 76 percent use social media. Only 6 percent of teens use email on a daily basis.

She also dispelled the myth that cyberbullying is getting worse. Between 2008 and 2010, bullying rates among 13 to 17 years were mostly flat, according to a study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

Bullying rate discrepancies between studies can sometimes be explained by how they define bullying. The Olweaus’ Bullying Prevention Program defines bullying as “aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power. Most often, it is repeated over time,” but some researchers define it differently

In a 2011 paper entitled “The Internet, Youth Safety and the Problem of ‘Juvenoia,'” David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, observed that during the years when young people’s use of the Internet has mushroomed, young people have actually experienced fewer serious traumas, not more, as is commonly assumed.

“In the U.S. there has been a remarkable improvement in social problem and risk indicators for young people,” he wrote.

Sexual abuse of children decreased by 61 percent between 1992 and 2009, he said, while teenage pregnancies went down by 43 percent and 21 fewer teens had multiple sex partners. Meanwhile, the number of teens committing suicide dropped 38 percent from 1990 to 2007, he said.

There are cases of children who have taken their lives after being cyberbullied but they are rare, and frequently there are other factors involved, making it difficult to blame the suicide on a single event.

Finkelhor isn’t asserting that the Internet is making kids safer, but the data clearly show that kids aren’t at greater risk since they started going online.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also show that bullying — while still a significant problem — has not become more prevalent over the past few years. Bullying among high school students (Grades 9-12) remained flat (20%) between 2009 and 2011 with a slight decrease among boys and a slight increase for girls. The report found that in 2009, girls were twice as likely (22% vs 11%) to be “electronically bullied” than boys.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). 1991-2011 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey data.

Challenges remain. While most kids aren’t bullied, a significant minority are and the numbers are higher for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) youth and those who are “perceived as different from their peers, such as being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or different clothing, being new to a school, or being unable to afford what kids consider ‘cool,'” according to the government website

It’s also important to realize that the consequences of bullying can range from mildly annoying to extremely serious. Adults need to pay attention to all cases, but the response should be measured and proportional. Research has shown that many kids are able to handle some bullying incidents on their own or with the help of their peers. But there are some cases where adult — and sometimes even law enforcement — intervention is necessary. It’s important to get all the facts and to avoid overreacting.

Just as with public health, when it comes to online risk, one size doesn’t fit all. We need to continue to provide positive rather than fear-based Internet safety education to all children. And we need to give extra attention to the smaller number of kids who are at risk and helpful intervention for the those few who are in trouble.

Survey: Parents mostly savvy on kids’ Internet use

For many years I have said that the best way to protect children on the Internet is to develop the filter that runs in the computer between their ears and, based on a recent survey commissioned by the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), a lot of parents apparently agree.

For the most part, parents do have a clue when it comes to helping their kids stay safe online.

FOSI commissioned Hart Research Associates to interview 702 parents of children eight to 17. The study, which has a margin of error of plus/minus 3.7%, found that “Nearly all parents surveyed (96%) say they have had a conversation with their child about what to do and not to do online.”

Controls have their place

But that’s not to say parental controls tools don’t have their place. Just over half the parents (53%) said that they do use some type of tool to control or monitor their child’s online behavior using products ranging from filtering programs on their PC that limit what sites a child can visit to services that monitor children’s activities online or on mobile devices.

Even though 47% of parents don’t use these tools, 87% of them are aware that such tools are available for personal computers, but parents are less likely to use and be aware of parental control tools on other devices that kids use to go online. For example, while 75% of parents feel very or somewhat comfortable about monitoring their kids’ online use, awareness of parental controls drops to 37% for game consoles (44% among parents whose kids use consoles to access the Internet). Just over a third (35%) of parents say they are “aware of parental controls offered by wireless companies” and only 39% of parents whose child uses a smartphone to access the Internet “say they know of parental control technologies,” according to the study. Just over half (51%) of parents said that their child uses something other than a computer to access the Internet.

Parents set rules

It’s good news that 93% of parents say they have set rules or limits on their children’s online with nearly eight out of 10 (79%) saying that they only allow kids to use a computer in a common area of the house rather than a bedroom. Of course, in an era when many kids are using laptops or even tablets and phones to go online, I’m not sure if parents can easily enforce that rule, but at least they’re thinking about it.

Three quarters of the parents (75%) have rules for how much time or the time of day their kids can be online but as kids get older, parents become more relaxed about these rules. Whether that is a good or bad thing depends on the child. Many teens have pretty well developed internal “filters between their ears,” but there are some who actually take more risks than younger children. While monitoring teen behavior is always trickier than monitoring behavior of young children, it’s sometimes even more necessary, though often an occasional conversation is all that’s needed.

Family ‘Online Safety Contract

Ten percent of the parents said they have signed a “family online safety contract” that outlines rules and expectations. Several years ago I created separate online safety pledges for kids and parents.

(Source: Family Online Safety Institute)

The fact that nearly half parents sampled don’t use parental control tools isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When asked why, the most common reason was that they’re not necessary, “either because of rules and limits already in place (60%), and/or because they trust their child to be safe (30%).”

I completely understand where these parents were coming from. Even though I was one of the first people on the planet to test out parental controls in the nineties when my kids were young (and testified as to their efficacy in a federal court trial), my wife and I elected not to use them at our house because we preferred more old fashioned “tools” like frequent conversations with our kids and placing computers in public areas of the house.

Filters and monitoring tools can be a valuable resource and I urge parents to at least think about including them in their vast arsenal of parenting tools, but I also urge parents to never rely on them as the only safeguard. The best way to protect your kids online is to talk with them about their Internet use and anything else on their minds. Have dinner together as a family, ask your kids what’s going on in their lives and be as non-judgmental as appropriate so your kids trust you and confide in you. Studies have shown that – despite outward appearances – children and even teenagers heavily rely on their parents for advice and guidance.

Besides, with any luck your kid will someday grow up and move somewhere where there are no filters, no monitoring programs and no parents over their shoulder. Let’s just hope that, by then, that filter between their ears is well developed.

For more on internet safety visit Larry’s blog and

Treating kids on the web in a new way

I spent part of last week in Washington, D.C., attending a gathering that turned out to be a watershed moment in the 16-year history of online safety education.

The third annual conference of the Family Online Safety Institute brought together about 400 Internet safety advocates around the theme of “Building a Culture of Responsibility: From Online Safety to Digital Citizenship.”

The event, which drew participants from 15 countries, was different from previous years in that young people were viewed less as potential victims of online crimes and more as participants in a global online community.

That’s not to say that participants didn’t worry aloud about youth safety, but instead of focusing on real and imagined dangers, we focused on how adults can work with young people to encourage both ethical and self-protective behavior. It’s all about media literacy, digital citizenship and critical thinking.

This was a big change from just a couple of years ago, when Internet safety gatherings typically focused on ways adults could put up walls to protect children against predators, pornography and other dangers.

While Internet porn continues to be an issue, the “predator panic” that was rampant a few years ago has largely been put to rest as safety experts and law enforcement studies from the Crimes Against Children Research Center and elsewhere show that, statistically, the odds of a prepubescent child being sexually molested by an

online stranger is virtually zero and the odds of it happening to a teenager are very low, especially when compared with children who are harmed by family members and others they know from the real world.When kids are harmed or annoyed online, the culprit is far more likely to be a fellow young person. Though exact numbers are hard to come by, about a third of teens report having been subjected to some type of cyberbullying or online harassment ranging from slightly nasty comments to cruel messages, impersonation or even stalking.

Kids are affected by their own behavior ranging from posting pictures or comments online that could come to haunt them later to “sexting,” sending nude or nearly nude pictures of themselves to others.

While such images usually wind up only in the hands of the intended recipient, there are plenty of cases where photos have been distributed to others or posted online, causing embarrassment or potential ridicule. Even worse, there are teens who have been charged and convicted of producing, possessing and/or distributing child pornography.

While most prosecutors realize that child pornography laws were meant to protect, not punish, kids, a few misguided ones have used these laws against children.

When I said that the Internet safety field is 16 years old, I’m dating it from the publication of the first widely disseminated Internet safety booklet and set of rules which, I confess, were written by this columnist. Back then, I came up with some assumptions like “that 12-year-old girl might be a 40-year-old man” and “posting personal information can lead to harm,” but I wrote that material long before we had research to show that these and other early assumptions weren’t actually the case.

Years ago, I stopped giving out that type of advice but others continue to perpetuate myths about Internet dangers. What made me feel good about this conference is that all of the panic messages were off the table. What we talked about instead is how we can help adults better understand how kids actually use technology and how we can work with kids to better manage risk.

One theme at the conference was “one size doesn’t fit all.” Most kids are actually pretty savvy about keeping themselves safe from serious harm, but others — who are taking big risks — need more serious intervention. Risk prevention specialist Patti Agatston suggested we consider using health prevention models for Internet safety education — basic safety advice for most youth and intense counseling from mental health professionals for the small minority of young people who are taking extraordinary risks both on and offline.

There was a lot of discussion about the lack of interactive social media in schools. Federal law requires schools that receive federal “E-Rate” funding to use Internet filters, and many schools use these filters to block social media sites like MySpace and Facebook.

No one was suggesting that kids should spend their school days socializing with friends on Facebook and MySpace, but several speakers wondered why schools aren’t using social media as part of the educational process.

Anne Collier, my co-director at, suggested that we think of social media “as the new book.” These are interactive books, in a sense, where kids are both consumers and authors. Rather than banning them, schools should be channeling kids toward educational use of this technology.