August 16, 2010

Cyberbullying: the research reveals school itself is (a lot) more problematic than the open web

School punishments
When we perceive of risk in sharing publicly and interacting online we nearly always risk obscuring huge benefits with our own inflated fear of the unknown. Research shows that digital risks are far outweighed, in fact, by challenges more close to home and school.

Throughout my New Zealand masterclasses we've been exploring notions of risk management, seeking out the means to maintain positive benefits-based risk analysis rather than negative barrier-inducing risk management. When thinking of students sharing out onto the world wide web and not just to their 30 peers in a private learning network, most educators have a twinge of fear.

One of the most compelling cases for this attitudinal shift in thinking about technology, student-led learning and teachers-as-enablers-of-student-projects can be seen in Gever Tulley's "Tinkering School", whose empowerment of very young children with power tools, nails and saws to achieve something spectacular wowed crowds real and virtual at TED:

This innovative thinking on risk is not limited to those reaching the lofty heights of a $6000-a-ticket innovation conference. In North Lanarkshire, Scotland, infants are being empowered in similar student-led, student-designed projects that spawn from often banal-seeming 'inspirations' - the delivery of some sand to the school leads to children as young as four constructing their own machines from wood, metal and other materials:

"Yes there's nails and hammers and saws, but those are the tools that the children need to achieve what they have in mind... The children don't have a risk analysis done for them. They are actively involved in forming their own risk assessment."

Seeing others doing amazing work like this is all good and well, "but what about my school which doesn't think like that?" So, in addition to seeing others undertake positive risk assessment in this way, I pull heavily on the work of keynote speaker and risk analyser Caspar Berry, former child actor turned professional Poker player, advisor to Casino Royale filmmakers and, importantly, not gambler. Caspar is genius at exploring risk through the medium of coin-flips, roulette tables and Deal or No Deal. He knows I rip off his work (with due credit, I must add) and that it has helped hundreds of teachers start to 'feel' risk differently rather than just conceptualising it.

But even this acceptance that we perceive risk differently from one another even when the stakes haven't changed, isn't enough. So what about the research? What does the research show us about the likelihood of something negative happening online, something serious even? Perhaps if we know some percentages then these facts, along with some great anecdotes, examples and gut feel, can help sway our attitudes, and those of parents, towards setting our web defaults to social. This May's Pew report Cyberbullying 2010: What the Research Tells Us has a US focus, but almost certainly these butterfly wings create winds of recognition elsewhere. From it, we know first of all that...

Children access fast broadband, normally away from adult eyes

There is a slight decrease in teens going online from home since we first asked – broader use/access and also wide variety of access points/mobile access.
  • 93% of teens 12-17 go online
  • 63% of online teens go online daily
  • 89% of online teens go online from home, and most of them go online from home most often
  • 77% of teen go online at school
  • 71% go online from friends or relatives house
  • 60% go online from a library
  • 27% go online on their mobile phone
  • 76% of households with teens go online via broadband, 10% via dial up, and 12% do not have access at home.

Library access and cell phone access is particularly important to African American, and to a lesser extent English-Speaking Hispanic students. One quarter of low income teens (HHI under $30K) and 25% of African American teens say they go online most often from school, compared to 15% of online teens overall.

Mobile phone access to communication and the web, and video games, are treasured

  • 75% of teens have a cell phone
  • No gender or race/ethnic differences in ownership
  • 50% of teens with phones talk to friends daily
  • 54% of teens send text messages daily
  • 27% use their phone to go online
  • 73% of teens use an online social network site
  • 37% of SNS users send messages through social networks daily
  • 80% of teens have a game console
  • 51% of teens have a portable gaming device
    Teens connect and interact with others online through games

and the most important piece of research for schools shows that...

Bullying does happen more at school than online:

Bullying happens mostly offline, in school

School is by far the most common place youth report being bullied (31%) versus elsewhere (e.g., 13% online)

The prevalence rate of Internet harassment (both perpetration and victimization) appears to be stable (2006-2008). 

The majority (59%) of Internet harassment comes from other minors

Youth who report being harassed online report a myriad of concurrent psychosocial problems offline, too.

What does this all mean in terms of the risk of sharing and communicating with the wider world web?

It would seem that the problems associated with sharing on the web are a) very small in number and b) related to bullying going on already in school. But more importantly, the web provides an environment through which to collaborate that is, in many respects, safer than the physical environments of the school institution. What else have you spotted in this research and how does it relate to your own perceptions of risk?

Image: Page from a school punishment book at TheirHistory, published with Creative Commons permissions.


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A few clarifications are probably in order here.

First the Pew report is a report of past research conducted by Pew researchers as well as by others (nothing really new here - more a concise summary of specific studies); second, it refers to US research and does not relate, necessarily, to the UK nor say, to Australia in the same ways (we know for example, that prevalence studies in both these countries point to different outcomes, 'numbers'and also to different issues to those in the US); thirdly, your analysis Ewan, is to my mind not very responsible.

As of 2010, there is upwards of 10% of 8-15 year olds bullied online in Australia (cyberbullying is regarded as repeated and sustained harassment - not one-off incidents). This is a very signficant number, which ever way you cut it. From the work of researchers in the UK, the rates there are much higher - up to 35% has been reported in some studies.

Not only this but the rates of cyberbullying in countries where access to technologies amongst children and young people is less widespread, are lower - but importantly, these rates appear to grow as technology becomes more readily available to a greater number.

We also know that those kids that take risks online are in the main, the same kids that take other, offline, risks. We also know that kids and young people don't differentiate from bullying face-to-face (in the playground) to bullying online; and that bullying that starts online is carried on fluidly over both online and offline spaces. Equally we know that bullying online can be, and usually is, of much greater harm.

Moreover, kids under 12 years (puberty) are suggested by many child psychologists (the celebrated UK child expert and cybersafety advocate, Tanya Byron is one), to be unable to understand or act on the implications of risk - they can know the rhetoric espoused by cybersafety advocates/experts but not what to do or how bad it can be, when something goes wrong.

So it really escapes me to understand why anyone would look for reasons to suggest (i) the web is a safer environment than the school playground (does it really matter which is *less* safe?); (ii) infer that online environments are safer for ALL ages and ALL risk profiles of children and young people - when the research says the very opposite.

And when did 10% (or 35%) of cyberbullying reported (of course, we don't know how much goes unreported or under-reported) become OK? Do these stats suggest low levels of incidence as Ewan suggests? Hardly.

Bottom line, is that there is too much bullying in society - on TV, in the playground, at home and online. Not only this, there is a growing trend of using technologies to bully others (a plateau effect has not been reported outside the US at present - and even there, in the US, only for some forms of harassment).

This should be of major concern amongst educators - and we need strategies to reduce the incidence of cyberbullying; equip young children (at an age when we can more easily influence their online behaviours - which is 7-8 years of age) with strategies to cope; and provide outside help (including legal recourse) where it is necessary.

I'm sorry Ewan, but the Internet at its very core, acts as a reflection as well as a hothouse of all that is good and ill in society. It can be a very dangerous place for young children who are deemed at risk in particular, and where these children aren't equipped with the behaviours necessary to protect their own wellbeing. And it does not do any good to suggest or infer otherwise.

Thanks for your comment, Martyn, and for several fair points.

1. My frustration is not that the Pew research is US-based, it is that there is next to nothing that covers the cultures and tastes of UK, Australian or New Zealand youth to the same extent. If there is I'd argue that it's a) not large scale enough, and b) not well enough marketed to those who need it. That said, any further links you can point to (or a delicious account you've maybe got curating this) would be invaluable to help set context.

2. A rate of 35% of cyberbullying in the UK would not surprise me, but there is more bullying at school than anywhere else in the UK - see Defra's report, the most recent I can find on this area:

3. Data on what percentage of children being bullied at school AND are being bullied online is woefully inadequate. Which ones are SOLELY being bulled online?

4. I found this interesting: "Not only this but the rates of cyberbullying in countries where access to technologies amongst children and young people is less widespread, are lower - but importantly, these rates appear to grow as technology becomes more readily available to a greater number." Any links to data you can share would be great. But I also wonder how related it is to what you refer to a greater tendency in society (at work and in marriage as well as at school) to bully one another.

5. Your reference to the perception of risk in children under 12 is spot on, and I come at this with a bias towards the implications of working with secondary school kids - point taken, of course!

6. I'm with you that I'd rather see less bullying in society as a whole. This comes from continuing sharing and discussing differences and perceptions online. Thanks for your part in thinking this through. What can we do to help put better, more relevant national research into the hands of parents and teachers that need it to make informed decisions about what online activity they undertake and do not undertake? Importantly, though, is that the more bullying there is online the more we need to talk with youngsters about how they publish online, and help them in modelling great behaviour online, which might be through publishing ongoing journals of learning and portfolios of work: we can help them present positive confident images of themselves. The lack of this one factor is one reason many go on to bully in the first place, no?

An interesting discussion with some NZ staff on the way home tonight, in terms of what constitutes "NZ data" or "Australian data". There's a feeling that culture in so many countries has more similarities with each other than differences, and that would include, in particular, US culture. No more would these similarities in use be more striking than in technology, particularly amongst teens.

While I'd love more localised research in this in different countries, I'm wondering if the rejection of US data as valid is as just as it sounds? I genuinely don't know, but is good good enough at this point in time?

I can see we are really agreeing on most things here Ewan. Perhaps the main point of difference is in the inference that 'open online' is not as bad as 'open offline', simply because the *reported* incidences are lower for online (research does indicate kids under report in this area - largely through fear of losing access to their technologies).

My main concern is that (i) online bullying is arguably of greater harm; (ii) that any amount of bullying is bad so why differentiate (when in reality, bullies often don't - they move fluidly from online to offline); (iii) there are cultural differences that need teasing out.

I'd suggest you check out Donna Cross' work (Edith Cowan University) completed for the Australian government - - this a very large scale prevalence study of covert bullying, including cyberbullying. It has some very interesting results, particularly in identifying the peaks of online bullying (10 years of age; and primary-high school transition).

You shd also check out the ACMA site also for their own significant work in this area (akin to the OfCom work in the UK govt).

Good to have the discussion, as you say! Hope the seminars in NZ are going well!

The inference is less that open online is better than open offline, but that open online is almost always better than closed offline, where the 'evidence' is harder for those who can help to find or become aware of before the issue gets blown out of proportion.

Thanks for the Ozzie info - off for a read later. Seminars are going really well, with most prepared to open minds to some quite big concepts, ideas and practices, esp for those in secondary education. Thanks!

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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