04/27/2012 05:24 EDT | Updated 06/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Avoiding the Bullies in Cyberspace

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, almost 21 per cent of American youth between the ages of 10 and 18 have been the target of some form of virtual harassment or "cyber-bullying." I asked Trend Micro's Lynette Owens, who runs the Internet Safety for Kids and Families program, for some amazing insights.

Some time ago I wrote an article titled: Cyberbullying Hits Home. Following that article I was approached by some organizations who had so much more information to provide. Trend Micro's Lynette Owens, who runs the Internet Safety for Kids and Families program, provided some amazing insights as part of this interview. As a strong advocate on this issue, Lynette is very involved in her community, and her efforts in Massachusetts have made an impact in establishing it as a state at the forefront of developing laws to address these unsettling issues.

According to Trend Micro:

"While many schools are taking a step in the right direction, many parents are still unclear about what they can do to help their kids. Eighty-three per cent of parents claim to be very concerned about their child's online security, yet only 30 per cent report visiting their child's social media profiles."

Proof points:

  • According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, almost 21 per cent of American youth between the ages of 10 and 18 have been the target of some form of virtual harassment or "cyber-bullying."
  • According to the 2011 Consumer Report -- 20 million kids used Facebook over the last year. Of that, 7.5 million were younger than 13. The social-networking site's own rules prohibit users that young. Clearly an indication that kids are at a high risk of online threats.
  • Here's the interview with Trend Micro's Lynette Owens:

    Has the Internet amplified the incidences of bullying?

    Yes and no. Bullying is still bullying, which has been going on for ages, however, the Internet has enabled methods of bullying that did not previously exist. It is no longer limited to school grounds, the audience (and witnesses) can be a larger group, and for reasons good and bad, it can be more public and better documented.

    Does the Internet create a protective veil that subjects people (who may not normally be labeled as bullies) to be vindictive and hurtful online?

    For adults and teens alike, there are some who may be more emboldened to 'say' something online under the presumption of anonymity. Or, even when your identity is known, if you are not interacting live, you aren't faced with the hurt and pain that you inflict, you don't have to 'own it' the same way. To bully someone in person, you have to be immune to that... most people aren't.

    Additionally, something benign said online can be misinterpreted. Humour or sarcasm cannot always come across clearly in ones and zeros. And this misunderstanding can then escalate into conflict that might never have happened if the conversation was done offline only.

    Can you provide statistics on Cyberbullying? What are the incidences of bullying? For example the differences in race, sexuality etc. Where do these occur? Social platforms?

    From the most recent research by the Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC), it is about 20 per cent among 11-18 year olds, though it depends on age. Online bullying tends to be reported more frequently among female than male teens per research by both the CRC and Mass. Aggression Reduction Center (MARC ), and peaks around 10th grade (then starts to decrease after that). Common types (as per MARC) are:

  • Name-calling -- 29 per cent
  • Rumours -- 23 per cent
  • Revealing info that should not have been shared -- 22 per cent
  • Rumors over text messaging -- 20 per cent
  • What is being done to raise awareness of this?

    There are multiple effort going on nation-wide and internationally to address the issues of cyberbullying, including:

  • legal action (state laws requiring schools to take more responsibility for preventing, investigating, and addressing bullying online and off)
  • education initiatives within schools, at all grade levels
  • efforts by both non-profit advocacy groups and for profit technology companies in terms of producing educational materials (blogs, tip sheets, etc.), direct advocacy, volunteerism, technology innovations, and funding initiatives that promote education, awareness, and further research of the issues
  • parent education initiatives (such as the Internet Safety night program that PTO Today and Trend Micro have engaged in, now in its second year)
  • Are laws starting to catch up and help identify and mitigate occurrences? Do you foresee changes within Facebook, YouTube etc. that include disclosure of information and closing accounts where incidences of Cyberbullying occur? What about screening for user age requirements?

  • There have been bullying laws in multiple states for some time, but only recently have several states expanded these to include bullying done over electronic means. I think it is still too early to tell what the impact of these changes in the law have had, but the fact that many of them are defining the role of schools in preventing, investigating, and addressing cyberbullying is a very good development. Previously, schools' roles were limited to what happened on school grounds only.
  • As far as the role of social networks to address bullying, all such sites have terms of service and community guidelines. If you break these rules, you will be kicked off the site. And if you see someone breaking these rules, there are usually links or email addresses to report such behaviour. This applies to ALL users, not just teens, and not just limited to bullying. Spamming, etc. are considered prohibited behaviours on social networks.
  • Screening for age won't address the problem. Most bullying is occurring among teens who are old enough to have a social networking profile anyway (13-18).
  • What are schools doing to educate kids and build awareness for this?

    On a nation-wide basis, more and more schools are starting to look at cyberbullying in a larger context. More and more districts are adopting internet-connected technologies for educational purposes. The more evolved districts realize that teaching kids how to use technology safely and responsibly is an important part of that education process. Cyberbullying is one of the many areas addressed in what is known as Digital Citizenship curriculum. When you teach kids how to be good digital citizens, you teach them about what they see and download as much as about what they post and share with others. Some of the curriculum that covers digital citizenship in schools are from Common Sense Media, the iKeepSafe Coalition, and NetSmartz.

    Can you give case examples where action has been taken to bring more attention to this?

    In Natick, MA, as in many districts, a peer leadership program is now in place at the middle and high school levels. This program encourages students to take an active role in helping to minimize the incidences of bullying in school. Additionally, a parent group called the Natick Anti-bullying coalition was formed by a group of concerned parents, experts, church leaders, afterschool programs and sports coaches to address/prevent bullying that might happen outside of the school environment.

    I appreciate the contributions from Natalie Severino, Lynette Owens of Trend Micro, as well as Jyostna Grover of AirfoilPR.

    If you see changes happening in your province or state, please let me know. I want to call out progress against Cyberbullying.