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Cyberbullying overestimated

Teenager survey on aggressive behaviour in the digital world
Cyberbullying is considered as one of the greatest dangers teenagers face in the digital world. However, it appears that the importance of the phenomenon is overestimated by the public. This is the conclusion reached by two studies supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).

Cyberbullying or repeatedly aggressive behaviour against helpless individuals by digital means can have consequences in the real world. Recently, some drastic individual cases have attracted great media attention: hostilities on Facebook drove several young people to commit suicide.

Three times less frequent
In the light of such stories it is not surprising that cyberbullying is considered as one of the greatest dangers that teenagers are confronted with in the digital world. However, its importance is in fact overestimated by the public. This is the conclusion reached by psychologists of the Thurgau University of Teacher Education and the universities of Berne and Zurich. They conducted several rounds of interviews with around 950 teenagers between 13 and 14 from the cantons of Ticino, Valais and Thurgau. According to their research, cyberbullying, which includes e-mails, text messages as well as communication in chatrooms and on platforms such as Facebook, is three times less frequent than bullying in the real world.
"The idea that teenagers engage in thoughtless bullying because of the new communication tools is far from true," says Sonja Perren of the Thurgau University of Teacher Education. The researchers consider cyberbullying as an extension of ordinary bullying, as opposed to an independent phenomenon. The teenagers who engage in cyberbullying often display aggressive and antisocial tendencies in general. Unsurprisingly, the amount of time spent online plays a role in cyberbullying. Other risk factors such as gender and the ability for empathy are not relevant.

Large-scale attacks are rare
The teenagers were asked about their experience of cyberbullying - both as perpetrator and victim. In addition, they were asked to estimate how stressful various forms of bullying are. This, too, confirmed that cyberbullying is not a new dimension in terms of the perceived negative impacts. Teenagers identify public and anonymous bullying in the digital world as a worst case scenario, but ordinary bullying, if it is similarly public and anonymous, is perceived as almost as bad. It is not the digital environment as such which is perceived as scary, at the most it is the potential for anonymous and far-reaching attacks which is considered frightening. "Cyberbullying can be worse than ordinary bullying if it is anonymous and reaches a great number of people, particularly if the attack spirals out of control. But such large-scale attacks are extremely rare," says Perren.

Classic prevention
The researchers believe that we do not need any special prevention measures against cyberbullying. Measures which are used to combat ordinary bullying such as early detection, teaching of social skills and oral values also work in the digital sphere. "Media literacy is also an important factor, but it needs to be handled carefully: the effects of bullying can be compounded if victims are made to feel that it is their own fault because they posted images carelessly," says Perren. She argues that cyberbullying too should be addressed by the classic prevention measures that draws attention to the responsibility of teenagers, teachers and parents. She adds that it is not only the bullies and their accomplices who are to blame but also those who allow it to happen.
F. Sticca, S. Ruggieri, F. Alsaker, S. Perren: Longitudinal Risk Factors for Cyberbullying in Adolescence, in: Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology (2012).

F. Sticca, S. Perren: Is Cyberbullying Worse than Traditional Bullying? Examining the Differential Roles of Medium, Publicity, and Anonymity for the Perceived Severity of Bullying, in: Journal of Youth and Adolescence (2012).

Both studies are available as PDF from the SNSF:
Prof. Dr. Sonja Perren
Pädagogische Hochschule Thurgau
Bärenstrasse 38
CH-8280 Kreuzlingen
Tel.: +41 71 678 57 44

Communication division | idw
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