Hannah Smith: What exactly is cyberbullying and how prevalent is it?

Hannah Smith committed suicide after being bullied relentlessly online. Doubtless, we'll be hearing a lot about how cyberbullying is the scourge of the tech generation, but that's not the whole story. 

AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Al Hartmann
Bud and Karen Peterson hold hands during a bill hearing that would require parental notification when a student has been involved in a threat of suicide or violence, Feb. 21, in Salt lake City. Their son Buddy committed suicide from bullying.

The UK has seen too much social cruelty recently, and tragedy as well, with the suicide of 14-year-old Hannah Smith. Though there has been plenty of news coverage and analysis already – linking Hannah’s suicide to cruel comments in social site Ask.fm – a formal inquiry into what happened has only just begun, the BBC reported.

And suicide prevention experts on both sides of the Atlantic caution against citing any single factor, including cyberbullying, as the cause (here’s potentially life-saving guidance from Good Samaritans in Britain and the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention).

So before much is known about this case, it might be helpful to consider what we do know about three things: 1) bullying, 2) the relationship between bullying and suicide, and 3) the nature of social media.

Bullying & cyberbullying

Bullying is a serious social problem, but not just among youth and it's more of a problem offline than online. It seems to happen wherever there’s human interaction, and – because social media is such a new phenomenon to people everywhere – its presence and unprecedented visibility in digital spaces has brought a major international resurgence of concerns about bullying.

That’s both good and bad – bad because the focus of public concern is more on social media (because it’s the new, little understood piece of the equation) than on the behavior, and good because there’s evidence that this time around we’ll get much farther in fixing the problem. More on that in a minute, but first what we know about bullying and cyberbullying….

Not just youth and not mostly online: A 2010 US national survey published by WorkplaceBullying.org indicates that, with 35 percent of adult workers in the US having experienced it, bullying is at least as big a problem among adults as among youth. Compare that to data about youth bullying cited in an issue brief by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC): that in-person bullying is still greater than cyberbullying, with 32 percent of 12- to 18-year-olds having experienced bullying offline and 4 percent of the same sample having experience cyberbullying. “Another study found that approximately 13% of students in grades 6-10 reported being cyberbullied,” it added.

Other research shows higher figures for cyberbullying – the Cyberbullying Research Center puts the figure at 24 percent of young people, on average, across multiple studies – but still lower than offline bullying. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) at University of New Hampshire, confirms this in his 2013 report “Trends in Bullying and Peer Victimization.”

Not a growing problem: What we never see in the news is reports that bullying is in decline in the US (I doubt the picture is much different in the UK). “The surveys that reflect change over the longest time periods, going back to the early 1990s, consistently show declines in bullying and peer victimization, some of it remarkably large,” Dr. Finkelhor wrote in his report last January.

Right on the first page of the report is a chart showing a 74 percent decline in violent victimization at school among 12- to 17-year-olds between 1992 and 2011, the latest available data from the US Department of Justice. (I'll shortly be blogging about more great research on bullying from the CCRC.)

Bullying and suicide

There’s a lot of insight in the SPRC’s issue brief about the relationship between bullying and suicide, starting on p. 2, and more recently from a study presented at the 2012 annual conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) which looked at both online and offline bullying in relation to suicide in 41 cases in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia.

The study’s author, John LeBlanc, MD, found that “78% of adolescents who committed suicide were bullied both at school and online, and only 17% were targeted online only.” So, he continued in the AAP’s press release, “cyberbullying is a factor in some suicides, but almost always there are other factors such as mental illness or face-to-face bullying.” 

Formspring.me (an older US-based Q&A site allowing anonymity like the Latvia-based Ask.fm cited in the coverage of Hannah Smith’s case) and Facebook were specifically mentioned in 21 of the 41 cases Dr. LeBlanc reviewed. Text or video messaging was involved in 14 of the cases. About the anonymity factor: “Certain social media, by virtue of allowing anonymity, may encourage cyberbullying,” LeBlanc added.

Social media

So while multiple sources – doctors, researchers, and bullying prevention experts – caution against focusing on a single factor such as cyberbullying in suicide, cyberbullying and even social media are the focus of speculation about the cause of Hannah Smith’s suicide.

It’s understandable that people fear or focus reflexively on what they understand the least, but we now have enough research to understand social media as more of a mirror than a cause – a mirror reflecting a growing proportion of human interaction and behavior, positive, negative, and neutral.

When it’s negative – and it’s news reporters’ job to report what’s rare, e.g., airline crashes not safe landings – the strength of our reaction is understandably proportionate to how disturbing the image is.

What’s different about this new media era, in addition to invisible audiences, instant copy-and-paste mass distribution, searchability, and other factors social media researcher Danah Boyd detailed in her 2009 PhD dissertation, is that the full spectrum of everyday interaction is more visible – in our faces, even, more than ever. It’s deeply disturbing, but the increased visibility of cruel behavior doesn’t mean increased cruel behavior. It’s often taken to mean that by reporters and policymakers, however.

We very much need to reduce trolling and abuse of online anonymity by Net users of all ages, and we will as social norms flow more and more into digital environments, but we must not react to tragic cases by communicating that social media causes social cruelty or suicide. If we do, we’re misinforming our children about the problem and failing to equip them to help create solutions that absolutely require their (and all users’) help in user-driven media environments.

Limited but distributed & shared regulatory power

UK Member of Parliament Diane Abbott and other public figures are calling on social media companies to take more responsibility for the behavior of their users and on government to pressure them to, The Guardian reported.

Social media services can always do more to respond quickly to reports of threats and severe harassment, but policymakers don’t understand social media if they think that even the swiftest response to bullying that is reported (much less than what goes unreported) can fix offline relationship problems or help vulnerable people.

It must be that, when we think that social media’s the problem, we turn to it for the solution. But nothing a single online service can do could stop cruel behavior that moves fast and fluidly among sites, texting services, and apps, and from offline to online and back again, in what is often a chain of action and reaction.

An account can be shut down, but a determined troll can set up a new one all too quickly. The context is not a single text, page, site, app, or service, it’s everyday life – for young people, typically school life – something on which a media service, even if it had a mere few thousand users, couldn’t possibly have enough context to solve emotional or relational problems or stop a sociopath.

That being the case, then what can public or government pressure (in this case, on a company in a another country) do but bring about incremental changes in the few responsible, high-profile services the public and governments know about? Then too, if that pressure somehow makes the services more restrictive, users who don’t want those restrictions can simply move on to less restrictive, less responsible sites, apps, and services.

What will help

To her credit, Abbott called on her government and Education Secretary Michael Gove “to rethink policy and give greater importance to teaching children about relationships.” She said she felt the government’s main failing is a “refusal to make sex and relationship education compulsory.” Based on what I’ve learned in the past two years of working with psychologists, researchers, risk prevention experts, and social-literacy educators, I think she’s right. That – and I’ll interpret “relationship education” to mean social-emotional learning (SEL) or social literacy – will go far in tackling bullying online and offline, in schools and our children’s future workplaces (see this). But it will take time, of course, and is therefore not a political solution.

So more research and education is always good, but collectively we know plenty already about how to help reduce bullying, trolling, and other social cruelty online. We can help young people have good experiences online by…

  • Providing them with evidence-based social-literacy training and/or bullying-prevention programs that embrace online as much as offline interaction (SEL just covers more ground than bullying prevention).
  • Instead of representing them as potential victims, giving them a sense of agency and efficacy in digital environments – helping them see that they are stakeholders in their own wellbeing online as well as that of their peers and communities.
  • Instead of risk avoidance, focusing more on supporting risk assessment and the resilience that helps them deal with social cruelty and heal more quickly when it does happen (see this about how resilience doesn’t come without risk). That way, they may be less prone to the depression that “is a major risk factor for suicide,” according to the SPRC.
  • In online and offline safety programs, giving as much weight to internal protections – resilience, empathy, media literacy, and ethics – as to external measures such as filtering, monitoring, rules, and policymaking.

Those will all help greatly, but the solution is no more dependent just on youth training than it can be on governments or social media services. By the nature of today’s user-driven, very social media, the power to improve everybody’s experiences in social media is distributed and safety a shared responsibility (see this about how it works in the globally popular, Sweden-based online game Minecraft).

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at Net Family News.

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