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Cyberbullying Is Still Ambiguous, Study Shows

Some situations are clear examples of cyberbullying, but others -- like writing that someone cheated on a test or "liking" an embarrassing picture -- are more opaque.

by Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press / September 22, 2015
(TNS) -- Kids can be mean to each other. That, we know. But what actually constitutes cyberbullying? That, we’re unsure of.

Despite rising concerns about cyberbullying among kids, the results of a national poll by University of Michigan researchers show parents are largely uncertain about what should be labeled cyberbullying and how — or whether — teens should be punished for it

Posting an online rumor that a student had sex at school? Yep, that’s cyberbullying, said 65% of the respondents. But posting an online rumor that a student was caught cheating on a test? Not so fast. Just 43% considered that cyberbullying.

The results were released today by U-M's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and its National Poll on Children's Health. The poll surveyed 611 parents who have children ages 13 to 17.

Lead researcher Sarah Clark, associate director of the National Poll, said the uncertainty about what should be labeled cyberbullying makes it challenging for school administrators to navigate these issues.

"It's up to the school to make sure things are dealt with fairly," said Clark, an associate research scientist in the department of pediatrics at U-M. "Nothing a school does in terms of setting a policy or consequence is going to make everyone perfectly happy. They have to be comprehensive in how they think this through."

The poll follows an earlier survey — released last month — that puts bullying, internet safety and sexting among the top 10 concerns adults have about children's health.

In the most recent effort, parents were given four hypothetical scenarios — including the two about posting online rumors — and asked to decide whether they are cyberbullying. The results of the other two scenarios: Sixty-three percent of parents believe a social media campaign to elect a student to the homecoming court as a joke, and in order to make fun of the student, is cyberbullying. But just 45% consider sharing a photo online that's been altered to make a student appear overweight to be cyberbullying.

Meanwhile, few of the parents thought any of the four hypothetical scenarios they were polled about should receive the worst penalty. While 21% thought posting online rumors about sex should be referred to law enforcement, a much smaller percentage — 5% and 8% — thought the other situations should be referred to law enforcement. The bulk of the parents preferred suspension or detention. Some also suggested an apology and no punishment as responses.

The higher number of parents who believe the sex rumor should be referred to law enforcement "raises questions about the criminalization of teen behavior, particularly when perceived severity varies significantly by the content of the messages," the report says.

Clark said the team working on the poll picked hypothetical situations "that we definitely knew had happened before."

She said she was surprised the results showed a 22 percentage point difference in opinions about the online rumors.

"They saw this big difference even though it's the exact same action — putting a rumor out there."

But it also illustrates that parents see a rumor about their child having sex as far more damaging than a rumor about them cheating.

Interestingly, mothers and fathers differed in how they viewed cyberbullying. About 73% of moms thought posting the online rumor about sex is cyberbullying, compared to 55% of dads.

The poll, conducted in May, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 to 7 percentage points.

©2015 the Detroit Free Press Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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