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UK: New research into childhood cyberbullying

"It's Crump!"

Before Christmas I took part in an online interactive theatre experience where audience members had to select an individual for interrogation based only their name, date of birth, gender and photo. It was an odd and vaguely disturbing experience because everyone rounded on one individual – "Crump!" - for no apparent reason…. and ripped him to shreds in the online forum. When I contacted the theatre they told me the audience behaved like this in every performance throughout the run.

Now Action For Children has released some similar results about childhood cyberbullying. As the press release states: “One in seven children admit to bullying online”.

In order to get a deeper understanding of what was really happening I contacted the organisation to get a copy of the full findings:

The whole sample is fairly small, only 2,000, and it spans children between eight and 17, with more respondents aged 10, 11 and 12 (40% of the total sample) than other age groups. The findings also suggest that this group is most prone to bullying others with 24% of 12 year-olds surveyed admitting they had done so.

The trouble is you can’t help wondering what children mean by “bullying”, whether this meaning changes with age – and how honest they’re being. “Mum, he’s bullying me!” a child might say laughing about his older brother… while he may well say nothing at all if he’s being spat at in the playground.

This means from the perpetrators an admission of “bullying” could presumably span from anything between a fairly friendly laugh about someone’s expression in a Facebook snap right though to haranguing someone into suicide on some anonymous forum. Maybe an eight year-old would admit to the former while a 17 year-old would not admit the latter?  

One of the more interesting findings within the report is that 49% of those surveyed have never spoken to anyone about “something that has concerned you/made you feel uncomfortable online” (28% marked it not applicable).

When questioned further this was because 46% were “not worried enough” to tell anyone, 17% were “worried they’d get into trouble”, 20% were scared of what the “bully would do” and the remaining 23% listed “other reasons” which were unfortunately not recorded.

These responses open up a lot of questions of their own and appear to suggest that while online “bullying” is a relatively widespread problem there is a pretty broad spectrum of its impact. This pretty much matches offline bullying, which is inevitably rife in schools, but mostly does not lead to lasting damage.

Any pack mentality is not usually intended maliciously by the majority. And the biggest reasons for “bullying” others presented in this survey were “to prevent myself being bullied” (43%), “to fit in with a certain social group” (59%, rising to 62% amongst girls) and “peer pressure” (28%), which are all ultimately different sides of the same coin. 

Overall, I think this study is a great start but it does show more detailed research is needed on what is really going on online: what form is this “bullying” taking, how frequent is it and how does it differ by age? It is useful that this gets people talking… but I think it presents more questions than it provides answers.

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