Sunday, April 14, 2024

Web Extra: Cyberbullying

This past fall, I interviewed Sameer Hinduja, the 33-year-old founder of the Cyberbullying Research Center at FAU, for the December-January issue of Boca Raton magazine. Hinduja’s research and insights on this newest incarnation of bullying have since been featured on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” and NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and he has worked on cyberbullying prevention with local and federal officials, including the Obama White House. Here is the full transcript of our conversation.

What led you to become such an authority on the issue of bullying?

I think it’s a multitude of factors coming together. I grew up and had some experience being bullied. I had a lot of nerdy qualities; I was very studious. I grew up in an Asian-Indian household where it was all about academic performance and professional success. I’m thankful for that now, but I was introverted and shy and bashful and uncomfortable in my own skin. That gave a lot of ammunition to my peers to make fun of me and give me grief in a variety of ways. That’s one aspect of it.

Then in grad school, my main research area became cybercrime. And that stemmed from just a basic interest in criminal justice and law enforcement and security. And then my dad had a computer business growing up, so my hands were in computer hardware and software well before my peers, so I was able to intersect the two, going to grad school for criminal justice and computer science and starting to study cybercrime. I have always been interested in technology use and abuse in terms of everyone and about teens. I’ve always cared about teens and invested in them and mentored them over the years in my community. I found it to be very fulfilling.

Then we started to hear a little bit about the phenomenon of online bullying back in 2001. I remember reading an editorial in a child psychiatry journal, and then also in People magazine, and I thought, nobody’s really studying this. And my colleague Justin, with whom I shared an office with and with whom I do all of this, thought that, well, we should study this. And I thought, yes, we should start researching this, because nobody is, and there’s potential for it to grow as more and more teens begin to embrace technology, as technology reaches into different sorts of regions and economic classes and areas where traditionally it wouldn’t have reached. We started to research it, and conducted a bunch of studies, and of course we started by figuring out, OK, what’s the prevalence and frequency of this occurring? And then we wanted to move forward from that and get into, OK, what are some contributing factors? What are some of the things that are leading to this phenomenon, both to victimization and offending?

And then we also wanted to figure out what are some consequences, because this isn’t just something you can relegate to cyberspace. It’s got real-world implications, and maybe those implications are as severe or even more severe than traditional real-world bullying that we see on the playground or in the classrooms or lunchrooms.

So from that point, we’ve continued to explore cyberbullying, and we know the media likes to discuss it, because we hear about these suicides here and there. Those are the exceptions, not the norm. The norm is that kids are going to struggle emotionally, psychologically, academically, socially and behaviorally, and our research continues to bear that out, and more and more researchers have focused in on the issue. From that aspect of teen technology misuse, we’ve broadened our studies to look at sexting, and online dating violence, and inappropriate use of Facebook and what sort of personal information is being shared by youth on social networking sites and how that might compromise their ability to succeed in the future as it relates to their digital reputation.

These are a constellation of topics, but they’re subsumed under the heading of teen technology abuse, and cyberbullying has been the biggest issue on many people’s radars. It’s been a priority of the Federal Department of Education and of president Obama and the White House. We’ve been able to work with them, and it’s been a priority of state departments of education and all the counties that we have around us with individual school districts.

Does cyberbullying in fact enable people who might be too timid to bully in “real life,” but now have this cloak of anonymity?

Anonymity and pseudonymity – the use of screen names – do contribute to the problem. We don’t have research to say that this kid would not have bullied were it not for the technology, but we see anecdotally that yes, there are kids who are socially awkward or inept or uncomfortable who do gravitate toward these online mediums to express their thoughts, and some of those thoughts are hurtful and hateful and possibly stem from maybe turning the tables on other people who have perhaps bullied them in the real world.

What do can you tell me about the history of bullying? Have we had bullies as long as we’ve had people?

It seems that way. Bullying has been something that’s existed for decades and decades, and the problem early on was that many just conceptualized it as a rite of passage, like every kid has got to go through this resiliency training in order to learn that life is difficult, in order to succeed as a hard-nosed adult. But then thankfully, in the ‘70s and so forth, they started to study this more and more and say, you know what? We shouldn’t conceive of it as a rite of passage. We should do something about it, because it’s plaguing our youth and it’s affecting them in the real world in pretty serious ways. It’s leaving wounds and impacting how they grow up, because developmentally, adolescence is such a tenuous point and also such an important point. We just had to survive adolescence and protect ourselves and get social support from our families and loved ones and just make it through, because otherwise, we were seeing people really struggle, and that was coloring how they would view themselves in the future, and interact with others in the future, and how they would strive for goals or just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘I’m just not meant to succeed.’ So it definitely has long-term implications.

I still hear that line of reasoning that, as you say, is outmoded – that bullying toughens kids. Michael Savage, the radio commentator, says things like that.

Right. And I work with kids all the time. You understand that we’re living in this society where it’s seemingly more and more image-conscious, where peers are more susceptible to having their self-image dictated in large part by peer perceptions. Maybe it’s because of reality television and everything being about physical beauty. Also, traditional institutions that have rallied around youth, such as the family, the church, community organizations like Boy Scouts – their influence is maybe rendered less potent. Adults in the community may not be pouring into kids as much as they had in the past, because life is so busy, and the economy is in the toilet. Everyone is trying to survive and deal with their life, and maybe neglecting to focus in on kids in the fact that they need people to pour into them and invest in them and tell them that they’re OK and normal and not a reject and not an outcast, which will then serve as a buffer for all of the peer dynamics that may be affecting them emotionally and psychologically, where they care so much about what everyone says about them and how they look.

Why does it seem like bullying wasn’t really a major national issue until a few years ago – have things gotten that much worse only recently?

No, though the media sometimes paints it as an epidemic. We say that the numbers have stayed relatively steady. We did a comprehensive empirical analysis; I believe there were 25 studies that have been done on cyberbullying in the last handful of years, and what we found is that the rate of victimization has been between 20 and 25 percent. It’s still a meaningful proportion of youth. And there’s also 20 to 25 percent who have been bullies. It is not a trivial amount; it’s an amount that warrants our attention and response.

What is your plan for dealing with the offenders?

We often hear the phrase “hurt people hurt people.” I think that we should be very compassionate with many bullies. The vast majority of them respond based on emotion. They flew off the handle. They were spontaneous. They didn’t think about consequences. I don’t feel like the vast majority are mean-spirited and awful trolls just waiting to wreck havoc on other people’s lives. They’re struggling with their own stresses. Maybe their parents are being divorced. Maybe they’re failing exams. Maybe they have these certain insecurities. Kids struggle and kids act out because they don’t know how to positively cope with the strain and the stress and the negative emotions of anger and frustrations and fear and embarrassment that they may just be feeling in their everyday lives. I want us to rally around bullies as well. Of course, some of them do deserve sanction or formal and informal punishment, but I think we should meet their needs and get the bottom of why they’re struggling and why they’ve acted out in this way.

We all have a picture of what traditional bullying looks like. Can you give some examples of how cyberbulling manifests itself?

We define it is willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices, which could be a DSI or iPod touch or a gaming console. Typically, it’s hurtful, cruel, threatening comments made on Facebook, hateful statements made via text message, embarrassing pictures taken and uploaded onto Facebook or other sites and sent around in order to denigrate or ridicule another person. We see videos being made and uploaded; we see hateful comments became made to YouTube videos that other people created to show their talents or skills or hobbies. Those are the sorts of ways it’s manifesting. Maybe as I’m saying this, you think it sounds quite trivial – like kids should be able to shrug this off. They’re just words. But unfortunately, we’ve got to put ourselves in the shoes of adolescents and just remember how much we cared about those words and how much they affected our lives and what we thought about ourselves and interacted with others.

How do you track this activity at the Cyberbullying Research Center?

We engage in a variety of things. One of them is survey use. We ask important questions related to their experiences, how they affect them, what might have led to it. But we also survey educators and parents and can conduct interviews and focus groups to get a more qualitative, rich, detailed, nuanced perspectives that won’t necessarily be visible in surveys, so you try to approach it from a multi-pronged approach in order to get a feel for what exactly is going on out there. Kids often want to share stories with me, but maybe they’re hesitant to talk to an educator or a parent because they feel that the educator or parent has flown off the handle and they’ve had their technology taken away, and they can’t risk that.

You’ve also written a book about music piracy, which was a fairly large issue five or six years ago, and now it’s something that nobody really talks about. Is it still a significant problem?

I would say that it’s still a problem. I worked on that specific project while I was in grad school, working on my dissertation. I feel like I still hear about it, but iTunes and other music sites have made it a lot easier for individuals to drop a dollar and get their music with high fidelity, without having to deal with possible viruses being attached to the files they’re downloading from Limewire or one of these other sites. It’s less a problem, but it’s still a problem, because we do see pirated movies, pirated ebooks and pirated software.

Is it an impossible dream to get rid of all of this pirated material?

I think so. Hackers are very savvy, and when there’s a will, there’s a way. They’ll figure out a way to circumvent, hack into the codes, remove the protections and be able to use the program.

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