The online world is the real world: what to do about cyberbullying

Photo Credit: Pexels

Kaylor Garcia & Deborah Temkin

Child Trends

When AOL Instant Messenger launched in 1997, introducing the world to a new concept of digital interaction, only 18 percent of households had Internet access and access was limited by race and socioeconomic status. Within two decades, 92 percent of teens from all demographic areas reported going online daily. Because the digital world has so rapidly expanded as an extension of the “real” world—and is increasingly a realm for bullying and other problem behaviors—it is important to instill the concept of responsible digital citizenship among youth and adolescents.

Today, it is commonplace to see teens on their phones, applying a filter to a snap or commenting on a Reddit or Tumblr post. In 2014–2015, three-quarters of youth could access smartphones that allowed them to use the internet anytime, anywhere. This widespread, constant participation in online communities has resulted in a digital world that does not merely shadow our physical one but extends it. What can seem like obsession with a screen and disengagement from reality is actually youth expressing themselves and engaging in communities important to them. In other words, acting digitally means participating socially.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Social media presents opportunities for youth to build communities, engage with others, and gain exposure to new ideas regardless of geography or means. However, it also represents a new avenue for familiar problem behaviors like bullying. Around one-third of youth ages 12–17 (31 percent of boys and 36 percent of girls) report experience of cyberbullying at some point in their lifetimes.

It can be tempting to view cyberbullying as a new issue, separate from traditional bullying, but the data does not bear this out. Only three percent of youth report being bullied online (but not at school) in the past 30 days. Such data suggest that the internet is a place where bullying happens rather than a driver of bullying itself or a standalone issue. Certainly, cyberbullying does present some challenges that are distinct from in-person bullying—for example, cyberbullying does not require youth to be in the same place at the same time and can occur more anonymously. Still, the prevention of both likely depends on the same underlying factors.

Bullying (including cyberbullying) is tied to a youth’s social and emotional development. Adolescents work to establish ties beyond their families, and may form their identities to develop a sense of place in the world. Their virtual selves offer a space to develop these capacities, but they need guidance. The idea of teaching “digital citizenship” involves helping youth better understand the potential consequences of their online activities, as well as constructive use of technology.

Indeed, there is at least some evidence that such programs are associated with declines in cyberbullying. At their core, however, the skills taught as “digital citizenship” align with broader social and emotional competencies; according to the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), these include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. For schools struggling to address bullying and cyberbullying, and to heed recent calls for better integration of social-emotional learning into their curricula, understanding this connection can strengthen their efforts.

Consider: youth turning 13 this year have never lived in a world without Facebook. Just as the Great Depression affected the Silent Generation or the Vietnam War affected Baby Boomers, technology and social networks are becoming the hallmarks of Millennials and forthcoming generations. By seeing the connectedness between digital and physical spaces, we are better equipped to instill and reinforce a sense of responsible engagement, both online and in-person.