Ineffective Cyberbullying Prevention: A Critique Based on the Irrationality of Adolescent Behavior - Hannah Jong
Bullying is commonly defined as the interactions between a “victim” and “perpetrator(s),” involving an imbalance in power and repeated aggressive behavior (1). While traditional bullying is characterized by face-to-face encounters of physical and verbal abuse, recent forms of bullying have entered into the realm of cyberspace. “Cyberbullying” involves electronic modes of communication, which includes, but is not limited to, email, instant messaging, chat rooms, and mobile text messages (2). Through these channels of technology, victims of cyberbullying experience name-calling, taunting, and other forms of harassment. Bullying through the Internet has become increasingly popular among teenagers because of the appealing ability to maintain anonymity (3). Several surveys have been conducted to find that the prevalence rate of cyberbullying ranges from 10-35% across studies, and both cyber bullies and victims reported frequent use of electronic communication tools (3,4).
Cyberbullying has become a major public health problem even within Massachusetts, resulting in severe emotional and psychological distress among adolescents—to the extent of suicide (5). The tragic death of Phoebe Prince earlier this year was primarily a result of classmates relentlessly sending threatening and insulting comments via text messages and social networking websites, like Facebook. School administrators and other members of the South Hadley community failed to act at the time the bullying was occurring. Unfortunately, Prince became another devastating case of teen suicide and the students who were actively involved are now facing criminal charges, including two teenagers for statutory rape (6). This led to a recent legislative action by the passing of a bullying prevention bill, to strengthen the statewide initiative in reducing the incidence of cyberbullying (7). The bill includes a mandatory reporting component applied to school officials, as well as a training requirement to educate teachers about bullying on school grounds and online.
Currently, the Boston Public Schools’ (BPS) “Cyber Safety Campaign” has a student-designed online website promoting awareness about Internet safety (8). Information is available for students, parents and teachers, which is essential given that the two most important social protective factors from bullying are parental support and peer support (9). The campaign markets Cyber Safety in a Box™, which is a collection of educational materials including coloring books, trading cards, bookmarks, etc. Cartoon safety hero characters have been created by the campaign to address children and teenagers about the issues regarding cyber safety. While it is valuable to showcase and encourage the efforts of the young people in the community, three significant factors weaken the campaign’s potential in preventing cyberbullying among teenagers. The campaign a) assumes that adolescents make reasoned decisions, b) takes an individual-level approach to change behavior and c) uses labeling inappropriately.
The Cyber Safety Campaign assumes that teenagers will make rational decisions after being presented with factual information on Internet safety. Much like the “Just Say No” campaign advocating for abstinence from sexual activity, a downloadable slide presentation alerts adolescents with the “do’s” and “don’ts” of Internet etiquette, and encourages them to be “smart and responsible” to avoid negative consequences. Teenagers are urged to automatically report cyberbullying when they see it. This approach resembles the Precaution Adoption Process Model, with the assumption that individuals will become subsequently aware of the issue and make behavioral changes accordingly (10). However this theory is flawed in that it assumes rational, step-by-step transition, when changing health behaviors. After being educated on the phenomenon, the individual can logically decide to stop engaging in cyberbullying, whether as a victim or as a perpetrator.
However, adolescence is a period of drastic physiological, social and cognitive changes. These enhancements in maturation do not always occur concurrently, introducing risk factors for young people to engage in harmful behaviors. While adults primarily use the prefrontal cortex in the brain as the executive function to consider consequences and to think rationally when making decisions, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed in a young teenager. Rather, teenagers tend to act on impulse after processing circumstances in the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain(11). Moreover, research suggests that bullies have lower levels of arousal and act out in aggression to compensate for their sensation-seeking brains(12). As a result, teenagers are often shortsighted and fail to think about the consequences prospectively when engaging, or are about to engage, in risky behaviors.
Amygdala-driven teenagers may not have the cognitive capacity to understand or discern the complexity of the emotional and psychological costs associated with future consequences of cyberbullying, such as suicide and legal penalties. Merely listing off prohibited activities is not enough to help them identifying and discerning what is and what is a not safe Internet practice, and how to make behavioral changes. Studies suggest that the provision of safety knowledge alone is not enough to change Internet practices, but rather emphasis should be placed on the reduction of risky behavior(13). In fact, one study found that nearly 80% of cyber bullies and 70% of victims self reported as having knowledge of safety strategies(3). Not provided by the campaign are opportunities to assist in the translation of the knowledge learned from website into behavior. Teens need to be taught how to avoid cyberbullying situations altogether, as well as how to cope after experiencing cyberbullying to properly acknowledge that adolescents, in particular, are irrational beings(14).
Additionally, the developmental mismatch hinders teenagers from making rational, informed decisions when presented with mixed messages. Users of the website are told to conceal personal information, but are told elsewhere in the website to be honest about your age to avoid adult “predators.” This is confusing and contradictory for teenagers, who are developmentally concrete thinkers, and requires the message delivered to be clear and consistent. With conflicting information, expecting adolescents to perform a risk-benefit analysis for rational decision-making would only become more difficult. It is evident that a biological mechanism exacerbates the disparity between adolescent brain circuitry and the expectations for rational decision-making among teenagers. Cyberspace intensifies the effect of bullying because teenagers feel less inhibited to express themselves with the reduced burden of social responsibility. Personal information and/or aggressive messages can be electronically exploited very rapidly through the Internet, into the public domain.
The vast majority of the information on the website is targeted towards changing the behaviors of the perpetrators and/or victims on an individual basis. In response to heightened anxiety after the Prince tragedy, an anti-bullying hotline was created by the Cyber Safety Campaign for young people to express their personal concerns about bullying on the phone, without the pressure of being negatively sanctioned by their peers. The blog also contains tutorials on how to protect oneself on social networking sites by adjusting the privacy settings. While these resources positively support youth in taking ownership of one’s health and safety, the campaign also neglects that adolescence is a transitional period when young people are more susceptible to the influence of others. Therefore, it is critical to understand for intervention purposes, that the individual occurrence of bullying is influenced by the broader social, physical, institutional, and community contexts (15). Particularly in cyberspace, the traditional victim-bully relationship is expanded to the vast Internet community, without limitations or boundaries. Recognizing cyberbullying as a peer group behavior would be more effective than intervening with each participant, individually (16,17). This is especially important for young teenagers, as they begin to re-orient their values by relating to their peer groups rather than those of their parents and/or caregivers. As Thaler and Sunstein argue, people tend to take upon the thoughts and practices as the majority’s opinions and behaviors (18). The website content fails to take into account that adolescents value the opinions and attitudes of their peers and approaches adolescent cyberbullying as an individual behavior.
From a social learning perspective, bullying is argued as a group activity with multiple, distinct roles (19). Derived from the social cognitive theory, a psychosocial model originally developed by Albert Bandura, the theory explains that people are influenced by observing and modeling after others (20). Crutchfield’s experimental results indicate the tendency for people to conform, even if it compromises judgment (21). In cyberbullying, there are those who observe, receive, and reinforce the aggressive behavior. The role of a bystander is critical and has been redefined as an active participant rather than a passive observer. There is a spectrum of bystander roles with varying responsibilities, and provides several opportunities for bystanders to take an ascendant role in prevention. Unfortunately, the campaign has limited access to resources or opportunities for discussion tailored for bystanders in activating their participation in the interpersonal bully-victim-bystander relationship. Instead, the campaign takes a three-pronged approach by targeting students, parents and teachers. However, there is no information on how to build a coalition between parents, teachers and students, to take a concerted approach in addressing cyberbullying in the community.
The website has distinct links available for parents, teachers and students containing Powerpoint presentations of educational information. Although teachers can purchase Cyber Safety in a Box™ as learning tools in a school setting, the campaign does not provide practical opportunities for teenagers to actively engage in their own school alongside the teachers. The opportunities available for involvement are outdated, and the most recent community event was in 2007. The website needs extensive information for all participants of cyberbullying to take a group approach in changing community culture. This includes school administrators, teachers, bystanders, bullies and victims. The website should also further its efforts to help build relationships founded on trust between young people and adults. King and colleagues found that there is a large gap and miscommunication surrounding Internet use between adolescents and their parents (22). Adults need to be aware and engaged in the issue through active involvement and supervision to protect and provide support for students. As David Marks would argue, continuing with an individual-level intervention would overlook the cultural and social factors shaping the context in which cyberbullying takes place (23).
Expectations Using Labels
Maintaining an individual approach in the prevention and intervention of cyberbullying presents the risk of labeling and blaming the bully. The use of labels is relevant to promoting health behaviors, but is of concern in the context of cyberbullying prevention. Research consistently shows that labels serve as a powerful predictor of behavior because expectations can influence performance. One priming study looked at variables influencing math performance (24). The researchers labeled experimental groups based on gender, and those in the female group unconsciously performed significantly lower than the male group after being reminded of their gender category. An additional trial labeled the groups based on race/ethnicity, and those in the Asian group did better than their counterparts in the other racial/ethnic categories, in accordance to the stereotype that Asians are good at math.
Similarly, awareness of oneself as the target of bullying is associated with negative feelings and the tendency for self-blaming (25). Studies have found that self-identifying victims experience higher degrees of bullying more frequently than those who do not self-label (26). On the campaign’s website, there is an absence of any form of positive association linked with bullying behavior. Being reminded of one’s labeled identity as a victim can potentially worsen the effects of intervention efforts. Likewise, labeling perpetrators as “bullies” can affect their behaviors because they may unconsciously live up to their label. Others also respond to the labels, which serve as a factor in the initiation of bullying behavior among peers (27). Interestingly, the presence of more than one victim within a classroom can serve as a protective factor with fewer negative feelings.
Given the cyclical pattern of cyberbullying, there are a number of bullies were once victims, and equally, some victims were, at one time, bullies. Spread throughout the website are messages of “anti-bullying” without guidance as to how to cope with insecurities, which may be valuable in helping to understand the adverse effects of the bullies, themselves. Often, adults involve themselves by discouraging and disciplining solely on those perpetrating the bullying (28). However, while it is important for the campaign to provide support for the victims and bystanders, it is equally important to meet the bullies’ needs and to offer compassion.
Overall, Cyber Safety Campaign attempts to mitigate the adverse effects from cyberbullying. While the positive impact of the intervention may resonate well among younger children, it is not in alignment with the cognitive and biological changes of adolescents. The unique experience of adolescent development may require a revamping of the campaign to take a more inclusive, group approach in addressing cyberbullying. It may be practical to anticipate irrationality when trying to promote behavior change among victims, bullies, bystanders, as well as adults in the community.
A Cyberbullying Campaign Proposal Using Media Strategies
Recent findings report a significant increase in media consumption hours among adolescents within the past five years, averaging about 7½ hours, daily(29). This offers greater opportunities for public health practitioners to develop tailored interventions addressing cyberbullying and other forms of inappropriate media usage, to promote healthier peer relationships(30). Intervention programs tend to be implemented in a school setting, but studies show that participating in a school-based prevention program alone did not show significant effects on the amount of cyberbullying experienced by students(13). Meanwhile, parents are advised to obtain software to block inappropriate content on the Internet, but conversations between children and parents are not being encouraged nearly enough. It is critical for public health practitioners to be aware of the online and offline patterns of bullying behavior, to deliver age-appropriate preventive options for adolescents.
The Cyberspace Safety Campaign’s website must be developmentally appropriate for the targeted age group. Current visual cartoon graphics on the website may appear childish and are not likely to be appealing among older adolescents. The widely marketed Cyber Safety in a Box™ contains stickers, and coloring sheets, which are no longer appropriate to adolescents’ life stage. Rather than cute images of super hero characters, images and/or testimonies of other young people, or of celebrity spokespeople, can resonate better among this particular age group to serve as the faces of the campaign and as role models for website-users.
The campaign also needs to revamp the educational component for adolescents, because teenagers do not yet have the developmental capacity to retain abstract information and act rationally. Alternatively to providing downloadable Powerpoint slides as educational material, the campaign can present the facts about cyberbullying in a slightly humorous manner to reach out to adolescents without taking away from the severity of the consequences. Using similar intervention skills as the successful youth smoking cessation program, truth, it might be effective to provide a short list of cyberbullying-related facts from credible sources. This is because adolescents’ brains are in the process of restructuring and are able to comprehend information only when it is concrete and clear. Irrational behavior can be predicted and prevented, by providing a range of interactive web-based educational modules to test their knowledge. This could include quizzes, games, and other means of reinforcing factual information.
Moreover, adolescents are always testing and retesting the validity of adults, so honest disclosure is appropriate and necessary for this target population. They also begin to exercise their enhanced ability to become increasingly independent. Therefore, informational facts can be presented in concise statements without overwhelming the readers with what to do and what not to do, so that they can come to their own conclusions about cyberbullying.
The Diffusions of Innovations theory, originally conceived by Everett Rogers, explains how health behaviors are adopted by a select few in the population(31). Then slowly, the general population adopts the behavior until a certain critical point is surpassed and the greater public joins the movement at a rapid rate. This critical point was also termed the “tipping point” in Malcolm Gladwell’s book (32). This theory acknowledges that external influences are highly impactful on human behavior and should be incorporated into developing an effective intervention. The use of this theory is applicable in reaching adolescents because acceptance and assimilation are key values during this developmental period. Teenagers like to adopt new trends, and feel a sense of connectedness to their peers. To effectively diffuse ideas in prevention of cyberbullying, the campaign needs innovation, communication channels, time, and a social system (31).
With the increased availability of the Internet among adolescents, the campaign can apply this theory by extending its outlets of communication. It must take a multimodal and multicontextual approach to meet young people where they are. In addition to holding a telephone hotline service, the Cyber Safety Campaign can set up a text messaging hotline to provide anonymous, accurate educational information. Teens can text lingering questions and concerns to trusted adults, and begin to have a conversation surrounding this matter.
The campaign can plug into social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, to relate with young people and provide opportunities of interactivity among peers. Public service announcements (PSA) can be posted on file-sharing websites, such as Youtube and made easily accessible on the campaign’s website, and embeddable, to be utilized for sharing on personal web pages as well. Adolescents, as well as the general population would be invited to publicly express their values and participate in the campaign in a socially accepted manner, by simply posting the links up onto their own web pages. The website would provide an environment where adolescents will be able to see what healthy, safe Internet communication looks like and model their own web pages after it.
The use of mass media will allow groups of individuals to be reached at the same time. Individual participants of cyberbullying (adults, teachers, bullies, bystanders, and victims) can participate in the campaign in their own way, and using appropriate media outlets to meet their own needs.
Public health practitioners should be purposeful and intentional when redefining the labels for bullies, victims, and other participants in cyberbullying. Rather than stereotyping bullies and victims, the Labeling Theory can be used as a foundation to shift the campaign’s focus to improving social competency, self-efficacy and other skill strategies among peer groups, families and school community. Instead of using negative language, such as “anti-bullying” or “fighting bullies,” the message could be reframed using positive terminology. This may require a change in social and environmental context, to emphasize positive change. For example, a program taking a psychological approach has named their intervention “Bullies to Buddies”(33). The Cyber Safety Campaign needs to send messages instilling hope for change, for all participants of cyberbullying, and to propose adolescence as a positive time period by challenging teenagers to take advantage of their youth to promote healthy behavior. By reframing cyberbullying, core values may also be improved and behavior can be enhanced.
Despite the poorly implemented marketing techniques, the Cyber Safety Campaign did made efforts to engage young people in the community to take ownership of the issue. Students have developed a PSA and a rap song, which are both posted on the website. Applying the Advertising Theory, teenagers should be further challenged and empowered to develop their own youth brand, to educate peers about cyberbullying prevention (34). A major component of successful execution of the Advertising Theory includes offering a large promise to the audience about the benefit of what the “product” will provide (35). This may involve coming up with a slogan and visual images in promoting the health behavior, and restructuring what the notion of “promise” of cyberbullying resistance can offer.
To approach this, stylish clothing apparel for sale at reasonable prices can be made available on the website displaying the youth brand. With the drastic changes in hormones and physiology occurring during puberty, appearance is generally a significant concern for this young population. Teenagers tend to seek for ways of ‘fitting in’ and adapting to their social environment. Therefore, the designs send a very subtle yet important message about cyberbullying, while being trendy and attractive. Although the apparel may not explicitly state the facts about cyberbullying on the designs, it is yet another opportunity that may potentially stir conversation among peers about the campaign. It is a painless way to mobilize and empower this age group to take ownership in educating their peers about the hazards of unsafe Internet usage in an indirect, non-burdensome approach.
Theory-based intervention techniques should be considered and incorporated in order to further empower the youth and to maximize the effectiveness of the campaign. Despite the negative and harmful effects of media via cyberbullying, there are in fact advantages to expanding media outlets to communicate effectively with young people. The coupling of media techniques with public health intervention skills would be a developmentally effective approach in reaching adolescents to help them carry out safe Internet practices.
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