University of ArizonaNorton School of Family and Consumer Sciences

Cyberbullying: Researchers to Discuss, Build Awareness

With broad expertise spanning child anxiety, digital game-based learning, school psychology, teacher training, aggression and other topics, more than two dozen researchers will convene for a UA think tank to address research-based issues related to cyberbullying.
By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications September 23, 2010
Electronic bullying is a recent phenomenon that has become increasingly pervasive, particularly among youth.

But the way cyberbullying is defined and handled can vary greatly among school districts, law enforcement agencies and also states.

To help promote precise definitions and appropriate research measures and strategies, Sheri Bauman, director of the University of Arizona's School Counseling Program, has convened a “think tank” drawing 20 scholars from around the world.

"As technology has evolved, it has provided many opportunities, but there are some uses of technology that also are harmful," said Bauman, also a UA associate professor in the disability and psychoeducational studies department within the UA College of Education. 

Coming from across the U.S. and Australia, Canada, Europe and Japan, members of the research hub will begin meeting Sept. 27 to produce reports, publishable articles or an edited book. The group also will plan new collaborative research projects aimed at addressing cyberbullying and, following the meeting, will introduce a website with recordings of the discussions.

The think tank, which will be held at Tucson's Arizona Inn, earned Bauman a National Science Foundation grant totaling nearly $49,000 to cover travel costs and accommodations for those involved. 

"We have realized how important an area this is for research. It appeared so quickly that everyone began working independently and creating their own definitions and own measures," Bauman said. 

"But we don't have standard measures for researchers to use to know whether we are even measuring the same thing," she added. "If an item is posted on a website about you that is untrue and perhaps humiliating, even if it is posted only once but 50,000 people see it, does that justify the label of cyberbullying?"

The widely accepted definition of traditional bullying is a subset of aggression that includes harmful intent, repetition, and imbalance of power between perpetrator and target, said Bauman, whose most recent book, "Cyberbullying: What Counselors Need to Know," was published during the summer. 

Also, who or what is responsible for managing the problem?  Government mandates? Parental control? Technology restrictions? These, too, are widely unanswered questions. 

One of the most prominent cyberbullying cases to date involved Megan Meier, a Missouri teenager who committed suicide in 2006 after being courted via MySpace by an attractive young man who abruptly ended the relationship.

Authorities later determined that Lori Drew, the mother of one of Meier's former friends, had posed as the young man via the social networking site. Drew was acquitted last year of charges related to MySpace agreement violations imposed during the case. 

Today, most states have laws against bullying, but the introduction of provisions to include protections against cyberbullying is more recent.

Penalties for violations of state cyberbullying laws range from a misdemeanor to a class 4 felony, and some state laws require that public schools and law enforcement agencies enforce online bullying rules and both create and implement prevention activities.

Others only sanction students if the cyberbullying occurs on a school site while other laws relate to both on and off campus incidents. And some districts have begun to require counseling services be provided to victims and that parents be notified of the harassment.

Such variation is problematic, Bauman said.

For instance, some call it harassment when an untrue statement is posted on a site and gets 50,000 hits, whereas others may say that is "mild harassment." Additionally, reports have been in conflict. One such example is related to the prevalence of bullying among youth. 

"When you look at the prevalence surveys, they swing widely from 4 to 42 percent," Bauman said. "It depends on who you ask, so I felt it was really important to take a step back in this relatively new area of inquiry to bring scholars together to try and reach consensus on fundamental research principles."

During the think tank, researchers will interact informally as task groups, spending more than two full days working to conceptualize cyberbullying and determining which measures should be used to gauge such behaviors while also investigating the range of analytical methods that could be used for future research endeavors. 

Participants include: 

•Noel A. Card, a UA associate professor of family studies and human development, has focused his research on child and adolescent social development, quantitative methods and aggressor-victim dynamics. Card is also one of Bauman's research collaborators. 
•Rhonda Craven, a researcher at the University of Western Sydney's Centre for Educational Research, specializes in interventions in educational settings related to bullying, youth obesity, educational disadvantage and special education, among other areas. She and her colleagues have developed a cyberbullying measure with strong psychometric properties.
•Peter Smith is a psychology professor and head of the school and family studies unit at the University of London. Smith has authored numerous books and his research has focused on social development and school bullying, among other areas.
•Cristina Del Barrio, a professor at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain, studies ways children and teenagers view nationality and national identity. Del Barrio also has focused on children’s rights, the roles of teachers and also school sanctions.
•Dorothy Espelage, a professor in the child development division at the University of Illinois, has long studied bullying and youth aggression as well as eating disorders and chronic illness.
•Georges Steffgen is a social work and psychology professor at the University of Luxemburg whose expertise is in anger, aggression and social psychology, among other areas.
•Dagmar Strohmeier is a psychologist and a University of Vienna faculty member whose expertise is in bullying prevention programs and peer relations within cultural contexts.
•Tony L. Talbert, an associate profess or education at Baylor University, is a qualitative and ethnographic researcher who focuses on research design, analysis and also social and cultural education.
•Marion K. Underwood, the Ashbel Smith Professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, has focused on anger, aggression, gender and also social aggression. She has investigated bullying via smartphones.
•Michele Ybarra, president and research director of Internet Solutions for Kids, a non-profit that studies issues related to adolescent health. Ybarra also is the principal investigator of Growing up with Media, a national, longitudinal survey of U.S. adolescents and new media-based violence.
The challenges in dealing with cyberbullying are pervasive and the harassment difficult to detect, said Marilyn Campbell, an associate professor in the School of Learning and Professional Studies at Queensland University of Technology.

Estimates indicate that the vast majority of cyberbullying happens outside of school and, often times, school officials are not aware the cyberbullying is happening.

"Cyberbullying is covert, or hidden from adult eyes," said Campbell, a school counseling and developmental psychology specialist who is attending the think tank.

"Couple this with the fact that most students do not tell adults about bullying and especially cyberbullying because of humiliation and shame but also because of the fear the technology will be taken away from them."

In the U.S. in particularly, given the freedom of speech protection, what classifies as free speech rather than bullying is sometimes difficult to define.

"Bullying is an age old problem that has not been adequately addressed in society, and cyberbullying, the new form, is complicating the picture," said Campbell, who has also studied anxiety prevention, intervention and the effects bullying has on others.

"We know that punishing bullies is not the most effective strategy but this goes against what the general public thinks should be done, that we should 'get tough' on bullies," she added. 

"But bullying is a social relationship problem and needs to be solved in a social context," Campbell emphasized, adding that solutions will likely involve schools, families and others.

"School climate, modeling by adults and education, especially of the bystanders is the most important solution I feel," she said, adding that she appreciates being involved in the think tank. "It is a wonderful opportunity as cyberbullying has no international boundaries."

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