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Researchers examine prevalence, challenges of cyberbullying

Thursday, April 04, 2013

LAWRENCE — As long as there have been classrooms, there have been bullies, and teachers have been expected to recognize and stop such behavior. However, the role of teachers in preventing cyberbullying, a means of bullying through electronic devices, is a difficult question to address. In fact, a recent University of Kansas study has shown that when kids collectively perceive their teacher to be effective at controlling bullying in the classroom, rates of cyberbullying may go up.

Anne Williford, assistant professor of social welfare, co-authored the study with L. Christian Elledge, post-doctoral fellow at KU, and Christina Salmivalli of the University of Turku in Finland, along with Todd Little and several KU graduate students. For the study, the authors surveyed students who took part in the KiVa anti-bullying program that originated in Finland and proved very effective. As social media, smart phones and other technologies have increased in popularity and prevalence, using them as a means to bully peers has also grown. And the practice is not as obvious as traditional bullying.

“We haven’t always done a good job of helping teachers and adults recognize bullying,” Williford said. “If a kid gets pushed, that’s a lot easier to recognize than a text message.”

The findings indicate that when students perceive physical or verbal bullying is not a workable option they may be more likely to turn to covert, more sophisticated means of achieving the same ends. While the percentage of students who indicated they had been involved in cyberbullying, either as a perpetrator or victim, was relatively low at around 4 percent, the findings were consistent in showing that a teacher perceived as willing to intervene led to increased incidents outside the traditional form.

Even though the majority of cyberbullying incidents take place outside of the classroom, the findings show children’s attitudes seem to have an effect on how often such behavior takes place, Williford said. In the study, students were surveyed about their pro-victim attitudes, determining whether they thought bullying is unacceptable, victims are acceptable and defending victims is valued.

As the researchers suspected, students’ pro-victim attitudes reflected how often they had been involved in incidents of cyberbullying. Significantly less cyberbullying took place when students reported high levels of feeling that standing up for victims is the right thing to do.

“We found the more positively the kids felt about their peers the fewer incidents there were of cyberbullying,” Williford said.

The findings show that both individual and collective attitudes have an affect on cyberbullying frequency. Despite some debate in the literature, they did not find that age or gender made a difference on the same frequency.

While it’s clear that cyberbullying takes place, the motivations behind it are still being studied. Traditionally, bullying behavior is perpetrated to gain esteem and acceptance among a peer group. That can be achieved through cyberbullying, but a bully can remain anonymous while harassing someone online. Therefore, the role of these motivations is somewhat less clear in cyberbullying. Peers can join in on behaviors such as a negative Facebook post, but bullies can maintain anonymity in many other cases.

“We’ve really moved beyond the idea of bullies being pathological,” Williford said. “What we find is more common are these normal human motivations: esteem, feeling good in your peer group, acceptance. But there really are unique characteristics in cyberbullying that differentiate it and how kids achieve that esteem.”

While students’ individual and classwide attitudes were shown to affect the frequency of cyberbullying incidents, Williford said to continue to reduce the frequency of such events, a broader effort is needed. This study was the first to view pro-victim attitudes and their relation to cyberbullying and is laying the groundwork for a new program. Williford and colleagues are working with local schools to provide anti-bullying training for teachers, parents and staff, including everyone from custodians and bus drivers to cafeteria workers.

“There are a lot of other people in the schools who hold important roles, but typically interventions are not designed to help them address bullying,” Williford said.

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