Key Points Made by Individual Speakers
- Youths use technologies for many purposes, including exploring problems; developing their identities; accessing information, resources, and support; developing networks and communities; and communicating with peers. (Mishna)
- Cyber interventions may be a safe way for youth to access anti-bullying resources and help and to disclose incidents. (Mishna)
- Effective interventions in non-bullying fields provide reasons for optimism that technology-based bullying prevention programs are feasible and acceptable. (Ybarra)
- Technology-based programs require self-motivation and interest and can be costly. (Ybarra)
Bullying is an age-old behavior, noted Fred Rivara of the University of Washington School of Medicine in his opening remarks at the workshop. But the rise of social media and the increasing prevalence of technologies in children’s lives may present new opportunities to ameliorate bullying.
CYBERBULLYING AND CYBER INTERVENTIONS
In many ways cyberbullying is similar to bullying, but there are also ways in which it is not, said Faye Mishna, dean, professor, and the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Chair in Child and Family at the University of Toronto. The cyberworld has created a new social environment for youth, she explained. Texting, e-mail, social media, chatting, social media, YouTube, apps, webcams, blogs, and other means of electronic communication are always advancing. Today’s youth are increasingly immersed in technology. Ninety-nine percent have cyber access outside school, and U.S. youth spend more than 7 hours per day with digital information and communications technologies, Mishna said. Yet when stories about youth and the cyberworld appear in the media, they are often negative. These stories then tend to generate punitive laws and policies, such as zero-tolerance approaches, she said.
The important thing to recognize is that these information and communication technologies are here to stay, Mishna said. Technology may pose risks, she said, but it also can have tremendous benefits.
Young people, many of whom have never lived in a world without these technologies, use them for many purposes, Mishna said. They explore problems; develop identity; access information, resources, and support; develop networks and communities; and communicate with peers. These technologies can be especially helpful to youth lacking offline support, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) youth or young people who are isolated or stigmatized, she said. “They might not be able to tell peers. They might not be able to tell school teachers. They may not be able to tell parents. [But] they may have an online world that is very supportive.”
Adults may perceive youth as more technically proficient and may therefore struggle to intervene or mediate their use of information and communications technologies, Mishna said, but many youth lack the critical thinking and decision-making skills necessary for always using these technologies safely and appropriately. Often, young people make right decisions, but they sometimes slip up—and some of them slip up more than others, including those youth whom research has shown to be more vulnerable. “They need adults’ input and guidance,” Mishna said.
Reaching young people, Mishna said, requires understanding what platforms are being used, how they are being used, and how technologies and platforms are changing. Mishna has been doing research on cyberbullying with students in grades 4, 7, and 10. Although the research is still
under way, she discussed several preliminary observations and findings at the workshop.
First, the definitions and meanings associated with cyber behavior may differ considerably between adults and youth. When young people are asked whether they have been cyberbullied, they often say no, but then they describe incidents they have experienced that most adults would indeed consider cyberbullying; instead of “bullying” or “cyberbullying,” the victims tend to describe these experiences by other names, such as “drama” or “trash talk.” Even the idea of an aggressor and a victim in cyberbullying is often not clear, Mishna said, because the exchanges are often back and forth. Also, over time, young people have become desensitized to the kinds of things they may be pressured to do, such as sending photographs of themselves electronically to others, she said.
Furthermore, young people often do not disclose cyberbullying to adults, Mishna said. Often the only times that adults hear about cyberbullying are when something bad happens. But it is happening even when adults are unaware of it, she said. Disclosure can be very difficult, and opportunities for disclosure may be limited, Mishna said.
As part of the research ethics protocol that Mishna and her colleagues developed, they had to have a way of identifying young people who were in distress. They found that about one-quarter of the students in grades 4, 7, and 10 were in “quite serious distress,” she said, which is in line with the results of surveys of mental health issues in schools and colleges. “What became very clear is that we were often the first adults they had told about it,” Mishna said. Many students said they did not want to make a big deal out of their problems. They may think that telling parents and teachers will not help or else will worsen the situation. Yet by the time that young people do tell adults, the situation may indeed have become worse, Mishna observed.
Opportunities for Intervention
Mishna provided several ideas for improving opportunities for disclosure. One is to make the disclosure mechanism highly accessible and easy for youth. Giving youth control over the process may also be important, especially in referring young people for professional help.
Cyber interventions may represent an accessible way to disclose incidents without making it a “big deal,” Mishna said. However, to date, almost no research has been done on such cyber interventions, she said, and available initiatives may not be helpful, may not be comprehensive enough, or may miss the target population. As an example, Mishna cited the It Gets Better project, which emphasizes that life gets better as bullied youth grow older. But, Mishna said, this message is not necessarily helpful. First,
many young people cannot wait to deal with an issue until they are adults. Furthermore, she observed, life does not get better for everyone. And, more important, some young people interpreted this message to mean that they could tell someone about a problem when such disclosures were in fact not safe. “It actually put them at risk,” Mishna said. “So we have to make sure that we have online campaigns that provide tangible resources to support struggling youth at the time.”
Cyber interventions may provide a safe way for youth to access resources and help, Mishna said. Because one-third of youth access health information online, it is particularly important that this information be accurate, she said. Sites designed to help youth with certain issues, such as depression, have been found to be moderately effective, with interactive sites appearing to be the most promising approach, Mishna said. In addition, research has shown that evidence-informed, school-based interventions using technology as a learning tool may be somewhat efficacious in increasing student knowledge. However, she added, these interventions tended not to change students’ attitudes about cyberbullying, which is why this strategy needs to be combined with others.
Mishna closed with several recommendations for cyber interventions based on her own research. Such interventions should be continuous and not be a single event, she said, and they need to be implemented in conjunction with other strategies, including traditional therapeutic supports. Furthermore, cyber interventions need to be tailored to youth with different needs, she said, and they need to be continually adapted to youth’s changing patterns of cyber use. Finally, interventions need to be made as accessible as possible in order to reduce barriers to their use. Research on the efficacy of existing interventions and how they can be improved to prevent harmful outcomes could help achieve all of these objectives, she concluded.
INTERVENTIONS IN OTHER AREAS
Few online interventions for bullying prevention are now available, said Michele Ybarra, president and research director of the Center for Innovative Public Health Research. One of those few is Bully Text, an intervention based on text messaging that invites users to “Stand up to bullying” (DoSomething.org, 2014). Users sign up to receive messages, which walk them through a bullying scenario with the intention of creating empathy and perspective, Ybarra explained. Another campaign at the same site provides young people with examples of how to reach out to those who are being bullied in their high schools and to be a useful bystander, Ybarra said.
Ybarra also said that she was working with Dorothy Espelage (whose presentation was summarized in Chapter 3) to develop a text messaging–based bullying prevention program. Although in its infancy at the time of
the workshop, it was conceived as a 6-week program, focused mostly on middle-school students, and based on a social–emotional learning framework. Students would receive three to eight messages a day for 5 weeks dealing with such topics as empathy, communication, and attitudes, with a follow-up set of booster messages. “The idea would be to have this lie on top [of what schools are doing] and make sure that young people are getting the minimum information that they need,” Ybarra explained.
Ybarra spent most of her presentation talking about examples of work done with technology in non-bullying fields that have the potential to inform the development of technology-based bullying prevention programs. One such application is CyberSenga, an Internet-based HIV-prevention program for adolescents in Uganda. CyberSenga provides information, motivation, and behavioral skills related to preventing HIV infection. As Ybarra said, “Knowing that condoms are effective is one thing, but if you don’t have motivation to actually use a condom, it is not that useful.” The intervention was studied through a randomized controlled trial of about 360 young people, half of whom were provided with the intervention (Ybarra et al., 2013a). At 6 months post-intervention, 80 percent of those who received the intervention plus a booster intervention had not had sex in the past 3 months, compared to 57 percent of those who received just the intervention and 55 percent of those who were in the control group. Among sexually active youth, those who had sex in the past 3 months and who received the intervention plus booster were much less likely to report unprotected sex than youth in the control and intervention-only groups. These data, Ybarra said, “show that we can move the needle not just in terms of attitudes, but also in terms of self-reported behavior.”
Another example was a text-messaging smoking cessation program called StopMySmoking, which was tested in Ankara, Turkey, and in the United States. It was a 6-week program based on cognitive behavioral therapy, Ybarra said. During a 2-week pre-quit period, participants received four to seven messages a day to help them reflect on why they were smoking, when they smoked, and what they could do instead of smoking. The day that they quit they received 10 messages, she said. “That whole first week is trying to be there with you in the moment.” The number of messages then begins to drop, until toward the end of the period people are more independent and ready to be on their own. If people report that they did not have a cigarette, they get a reinforcing message, Ybarra said, while if they say that they slipped, they get a message about getting back on track.
In Turkey, a randomized controlled trial found that 11 percent of the people in the intervention group quit smoking, compared with only 5 percent of those in the control group, who had just received a brochure about quitting (Ybarra et al., 2012). Among light smokers, 17 percent in the intervention quit versus none in the control group, and among women,
14 percent in the intervention group quit versus none in the control group. This suggests, Ybarra said, that “no one intervention is going to be universal.” In Turkey, she noted, this program seems to be well suited for women and light smokers.
In the United States, Ybarra’s group looked at 150 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who were randomly assigned either to the intervention group or to an attention-matched control group whose members received text messages at the same rate as the intervention group, but the messages were about fitness and sleep rather than about quitting smoking. Three months after the designated quit day, 40 percent of the intervention group had quit, versus 30 percent of the control group (Ybarra et al., 2013b), and the results were even better for young people who were not in college, Ybarra said.
Online Health Information
As mentioned by Mishna, many young people look for health information online. In a national survey of more than 5,000 youth, adolescents who were bullied had significantly higher rates of seeking information online about such topics as medications, depression and suicide, drugs and alcohol, and violence and abuse (Mitchell et al., 2013). Yet the highest rates were still just 22 percent.
Online information is important, she concluded, but it should be just one tool in an overall approach to bullying prevention. Technology-based programs require self-motivation and interest, and they can be costly. Thus, Ybarra said, figuring out how to engage youth and keep them coming back may be critical.
PREVALENCE AND RESPONSES
Two interesting subjects that arose during the discussion sessions were the prevalence of cyberbullying and the ways in which people respond to cyberbullying.
Both Ybarra and Mishna observed that cyberbullying appears to be less prevalent than is commonly assumed. Among adolescents 14 to 18 years old, cyberbullying occurs at only about one-half the rate of in-person bullying, Ybarra said, with the rates depending somewhat on the definitions and perceptions of cyberbullying. These statistics, Mishna said, “speak to the need to identify the facts and the myths that come up.”
In response to a question about responses from bystanders to bullying, Mishna observed that because the cyberworld is more impersonal, bystanders have less motivation to intervene. “That is part of the education they
need,” she said. “While they are being witnesses, it actually can make a big difference for somebody.” Ybarra pointed out that cyberbullying can seem anonymous, but usually the identity of a perpetrator is known. Still, the experience is different from standing in front of a target and a group of people.
Mishna emphasized the need for responses to be short, direct, and interactive. For example, developing an engaging way to deliver the message that bullying is hurtful could have a substantial impact, she said.
Ybarra pointed to the importance of having enough exposure to change behavior. As noted in many of the presentations, one-shot interventions do not provide enough exposure. Therefore, Ybarra said, it will be necessary to find ways to motivate young people to return to a website or other technology platform repeatedly. As Ybarra noted, building an intervention does not mean that anyone will use it. Young people need to be motivated to use a technology or communications platform, she said. Schools have a captive audience, but that is not the case online. She added that it helps if an intervention is available where youth are online, even if they are in multiple places that change over time.
In response to a question about the advisability of tracking and monitoring software to prevent cyberbullying, Mishna said that a better option would be for school districts and parents to find ways to have an interaction so that children and youth can respond to professionals online. The problem with tracking and monitoring software is that young people will find other ways to do what they want to do, Mishna said. “We want to open up the conversation and not close it.” That also means providing information to adults so that they neither overreact nor minimize the problem.
In Canada, Mishna said, universities are forming taskforces with students and professors to identify the issues involving in bullying. “We have to begin that conversation, but students need to be involved,” she said.