Parents underestimate prevalence of cyberbullying

As teens become increasingly connected to each other an the outside world online, parents are often in the dark about their kids digital interactions and commonly underestimate their kids' exposure to cyberbullying.

Rick Runion/The Ledger/AP
Brian Kramp (l.) and Lauren Aspiro hold signs during a carwash fundraiser for Rebecca Ann Sedwick at the 7-11 on US 98 and Daughtery Road in Lakeland, Fla., Sept. 15. Rebecca committed suicide after being bullied for one and half years.

Among other goals, good social science fills in the numbers to back (or disprove) popular perceptions. It's easy to feel as though our kids are running wild online, and that we don't know the half of it. According to a Cornell University paper entitled "Peers, Predators, and Porn: Predicting Parental Underestimation of Children’s Risky Online Experiences" and published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, not knowing the half of it is almost literally true.

Parents reported a number of potentially dangerous behaviors (their kids being cyberbullied, cyberbullying others, or being approached by a stranger online) at a rate about half that of their kids reported the same experiences. When parents had an inaccurate view of their kids behavior, they generally underestimated rather than overestimated. Ten times as many parents who were inaccurate about their kids being cyberbullied underestimated the fact, for example, and a similar ratio underestimated their kids cyberbullying others.

The "Peers, Predators, and Porn" study touches on an intriguing observation about parenting styles relevant to how online socializing is regulated within a household.

Parents are generally categorized as inclined toward one of three parenting styles – permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative (Baumrind, 1991; Maccoby & Martin, 1983). Permissive parents tend to be more lenient and indulgent in order to avoid confrontation with their children – allowing considerable self-regulation; in some households, children set the rules. In contrast, authoritarian parents expect high levels of obedience, sometimes without explanation, and provide strict nonnegotiable rules. Authoritative parents juggle being responsive to their children’s thoughts and ideas, yet firm about expectations in the household (Baumrind, 1991). 

The implications are that both permissive and authoritarian parenting styles can lead to unpleasant online outcomes for children – the former because a parental avoidance of conflict leads to an underestimation of risky behavior, and the latter because:

...authoritarian parents expect higher levels of obedience, [and so] their children are more likely to conceal risky online experiences, leading the parents to underestimate them.

Authors do offer one suggestion that might prove useful to parents – simply move the computer into a public area of the home.

Parents are urged to be aware that if their children are online in a private place, it probably indicates that they do not know exactly what they are doing. Moving the computer to a public place in the home seems prudent, however this strategy is difficult to enforce, as the more strictly a parent controls Internet use, the more likely the youth are to find their way around such rules (Byrne & Lee, 2011)

All of this feels particularly relevant amid the controversy surrounding the death of Florida 12-year-old Rebecca Sedgwick, who was reportedly bullied by a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old, the former of whom was arrested after supposedly posting on Facebook that she had bulled Sedgwick and didn't care about the consequences.

The parents of the 14-year-old are now publicly stating that she can't be Rebecca's cyberbully – they monitored her behavior online, they maintain. True or not, it nods toward a common situation among parents: feeling as though they're got their kids all figured out while missing an entire secret life.

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