Good Digital Parenting
Blog | March 19, 2014

Not Black and White: Understanding the Nuances of Cyberbullying

Director of Education, MediaSmarts

How big a problem is cyberbullying? To judge by media coverage 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. 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 the answer is somewhere in between, presenting a portrait of online conflict that demands more nuanced, contextualized and evidence-based responses. 

A significant minority of students have experienced online meanness: just over a third say that someone has said something mean or cruel to them, and of those just under a third say that it was sometimes or often a serious problem. Roughly a quarter of students say that they have engaged in online meanness. Meanness is fairly often reciprocal, with a significant overlap between students who have engaged in online meanness and those who have experienced it. 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 relatively harmless teasing. 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% of students overall) 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. 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 they are more likely to try to resolve the situation directly or turn to authorities for help. 

Girls are more likely than boys to engage in online meanness, to experience it or to say that it was a serious problem. Those girls who do engage in online meanness are substantially more likely to post or share an embarrassing photo or video. 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. (Contrary to stereotypes, there is no significant difference between the number of girls and boys who spread rumours.) 

The participants in our 2012 Young Canadians in a Wired World focus groups largely characterized boys’ online conflict as “pranking,” 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 as girls 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 in the platforms where girls’ online conflict often takes place, such as texts and social networks, many of the things that trigger empathy in us – a person’s tone of voice, their body language, and their facial expression – are absent. 

The role of parents remains an extremely important one, with a significant number of students turning to them for help even in 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. 

When it comes to schools the picture is more complicated. Almost two-thirds of students say their school has a rule relating to cyberbullying, but there is almost no correlation between the presence of school rules and whether or not a student has engaged in or experienced meanness 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. 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. 

Cover image courtesy of Flickr.