What Is Cyberbullying? Parents in Survey Struggle to Define It

Childhood obesity and bullying are parents’ top two concerns among health problems facing kids in the U.S., according to a recent survey by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital of Michigan.

In a follow-up report, C.S. Mott has also determined that a primary roadblock to stopping bullying—particularly cyberbullying—is the inability to recognize it.

Parents seem to have a difficult time agreeing upon what qualifies as bullying. When does joking or a harmless tease cross the line? Parents also appear conflicted about how to react to and punish cases of cyberbullying.

According to StopBullying.gov, students who are cyberbullied are more likely to avoid going to school. The American Osteopathic Association (AOA) says cyberbullying can lead to feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and depression. Compounding the issue, the AOA notes that,”victims feel the need to conceal the fact that they are being bullied because they are embarrassed or afraid of further bullying.” And, as early as 2005, JAMA Pediatrics, found a direct correlation between bullying and negative academic achievement.

Before a parent can offer support or intervene to derail cyberbullying, he or she must first recognize that it is taking place.

By definition, cyberbullying employs the use of social media or electronic communications to harass or threaten another person. Further outlining the legal specifics of cyberbullying, Andrew Coffman, writing for the National Center for Justice and the Rule of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, notes that cyberbullying is willful, repetitive, and specifically involves children.

“Bullying is largely about the exploitation of power,” Coffman writes. “Cyberbullying does not require physical strength. Instead, the power is in one’s ability to use technology. Rarely would a traditional bully be able to use physical strength to bully a teacher. . . . However, cyberbullying changes that dynamic.”

Coffman also cites disagreement, even within the ranks of legal experts, when it comes to a precise definition. Some have maintained that cyberbullying can only be directed at students. Therein lies at least part of the problem. If legal experts can’t agree on a strict definition of cyberbullying, how can parents?

In May 2015, C.S Mott, in conjunction with the University of Michigan Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases and the University of Michigan Health Evaluation and Research Unit, produced its national survey of parents of teens 13 to 17 years old. The survey posed hypothetical situations and found that parents widely disagreed on what constituted bullying and what did not. Given the following results, between 30 and 50 percent of parents were unsure if the following examples constituted cyberbullying:

  • Posting online rumors that a student had sex at school—65 percent say this is definitely cyberbullying
  • A social media campaign to elect a student to the homecoming court is a mean joke—63 percent say it is definitely cyberbullying
  • Sharing a photo, altered to make a classmate appear fatter—45 percent say this is definitely cyberbullying
  • Posting online rumors that a student was caught cheating on a test—43 percent say this is definitely cyberbullying

The survey, conducted by Custom Research LLC and weighted to randomly reflect U.S. Census Bureau figures of U.S. parents with at least one child age 13 to 17, is said to have a margin of error of plus or minus two percent. It also determined that:

  • Mothers are more likely than fathers to label actions as cyberbullying
  • One in five parents believes students who post online rumors about sex should be referred to law enforcement

The poll numbers led C.S. Mott researchers to conclude that a challenge exists in “establishing clear definitions and punishments for cyberbullying” and that parents “appear to incorporate perceived intention into their judgments about cyberbullying.

“Less than half of the parents gave the ‘definitely cyberbullying’ label to sharing a photo, altered to make a student look fat—perhaps because parents may have been unsure about the intention of the action. . . . This reflects the challenges that schools face in developing clear policies around cyberbullying,” the survey concluded.

Writing for Scholastic.com, Caralee Adams observes that the negative effects of cyberbullying are ultimately more important than the precise definition. “They may not call it cyberbullying,” Adams writes. “Students may say they got ‘dissed’ on Facebook or that someone flooded their phone with mean texts.”

Adams refers to a 2010 study by Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, co-directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center, who found cyberbullying most prevalent among middle schoolers, particularly girls in their book, Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying. “Cyberbullying is tailor-made for the relational aggression and rumors that girls typically engage in,” Patchin says. Because the bully can choose to remain anonymous—even unaware of the pain being inflicted—Patchin adds, “It emboldens some kids to bully who wouldn’t otherwise, because they can hide behind a computer screen.”

Schools remain uncertain about what to do. Banning the use of technology makes no sense, in part because cyberbullying doesn’t necessarily take place within the confines of school. Teaching students to become, as Adams calls them, “good digital citizens,” seems to be the most positive approach.

“If schools are using technology to deliver education and instruction, they have a responsibility to educate students so they use it correctly,” Hinduja says. “Schools believe the Internet and computers are part of kids’ lives when, honestly, it is their life.”


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To help in the fight against bullying, join with us for our 31 Simple Acts of Kindness challenge. Print out our calendar and then use #SimpleActsK12 to share pictures and stories of you and your students doing these daily Simple Acts. Together, we can use kindness to #SayNoToBullying![/schedule]

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