Cyberbullying: Reflections of the Real World

Anne Collier
  • By Anne Collier
  • Misc
  • May 14, 2013

Cyber-Bullying: Reflections of the Real World

I keep seeing research evidence that “what goes around, comes around” online too. We think of it as common sense in the face-to-face world, but it’s becoming pretty evident online too. There’s safety in respect for self and others wherever it’s shown, including in digital spaces. Here are three examples in the research, starting with a recently released study:

Positive Begets Positive Online Too

The latest is a study released by Michigan State University researchers who found that “positive online comments can help blunt cyberbullying.” The question that led the press release was: “Want to stop cyberbullying on Facebook? Try using … Facebook.” But certainly not just in Facebook; that’s just where the research was done. If you want positive behaviors from others, be positive. We kind of knew that, right? I’m not being sarcastic in any way, just noting what we’re seeing more and more in the research: that online reflects offline, and there’s an ethic of reciprocity that works in all spaces. The social norms and common sense we humans have been developing for thousands of years apply in this new “space” into which human relations spill over and play out too. “We’ve established with our research that anti-cyberbullying messages that are framed in a negative way are not getting kids’ attention,” said one of the MSU researchers, Asst. Prof. Anna McAlister. This is good advice for the online safety field too.

The Offline Context of Online Behaviors

 A study recently published in the journal Psychology of Violence by researchers at the University of New Hampshire cites the overlap found between online and offline social aggression, saying that “research suggests that online behavior is often an extension of, or is similar to, social behavior in the face-to-face world.” So what we’re seeing is, what happens online, both positive and negative, is often a reflection of offline experiences and relationships – and negative behaviors in either “place” can be reactions to actions or comments in the other. Any investigation into what we see in a social network site probably shouldn’t stop there. The online “evidence” could be the latest development in a long chain of reaction. There is so much more in this study, “Online Harassment in Context: Trends From Three Youth Internet Safety Surveys (2000, 2005, 2010).” It certainly adds clarity and confirms that school – not so much a Web site or app – is the real context of any social aggression or victimization online among young people.

Early Evidence

An early bit of evidence in this social media era that we reap what we sow was the finding in a 2007 article in Archives of Pediatrics that aggressive behavior online can significantly increase online victimization. “Aggressive behavior” had a broad range of definitions back then: “making rude or nasty comments or frequently embarrassing others, meeting people in multiple ways, and talking about sex online with unknown people.” That was a milestone for me as an observer of the online-safety space for nearly a decade at that time. It was suddenly clear to me then what was confirmed later in a Harvard School of Education study on digital ethics: that each participant is a stakeholder in his or her own wellbeing online, as well as the wellbeing of his or her peers and of their community. Youth are stakeholders, potential change agents, not passive potential victims, as they were so often represented to be (see this, posted 9/10). It was the first clear sign to me that citizenship – respectful, literate, competent participation, online and offline – is key not only to safety but also success for both the community and its participants.

When friends in risk prevention spoke of bringing the public health field’s layers of prevention – primary/universal prevention, secondary/targeted prevention, and tertiary/targeted prevention and intervention for high-risk participants – that’s when it became, to me, crystal clear that teaching, modeling and practicing citizenship together (children and adults) in digital spaces is Level 1: primary, universal online-risk prevention (a task force I co-chaired put this concept into its 2010 report to Congress, recommending that digital citizenship instruction, pre-K-12, be a national priority). Ideally, the digital part is talked about, modeled and practiced from the moment a connected device is put into a child’s hands. And it’s not complicated. The essence of citizenship is: learning how to respect and be good to ourselves and others. That goes a long way toward keeping people, spaces and communities safe. It’s a value that has been taught in many cultures and traditions worldwide for millennia, and it will serve us all well in digital spaces too.


Anne Collier of Net Family News Social Media

Content provided by Anne Collier. Editor of and founder and executive director of its parent organization, Net Family News, Inc. More on Anne Collier can be found here.


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