Lee Hirsch’s new documentary “bully,” portrays the difficulties children often experience when they are tormented by school peers. With the widespread use of social media, that bullying often includes cyberbullying.
The Kaiser Foundation reports that media are among the most influential forces in the lives of young people today, who spend more time with it – 7.5 hours a day, 7 days a week – than with most other activities. In the Future of Children volume Children and Electronic Media, researchers highlight the findings of a 2007 web-based survey of 1,454 adolescents, which found that seventy-two percent of respondents in the study experienced at least one incident of cyberbullying in the previous year.
In their chapter “Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships” Future of Children authors Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield summarize other research findings regarding cyberbullying, showing that youth aged 10 to 17 with symptoms of depression are more likely to report having been a victim of online harassment. Those that cyberbully are more likely to report delinquency, substance abuse, and poor parent-child relationships. The authors note that more research is needed to determine the causality of these relationships.
The Children and Electronic Media volume indicates three areas of intervention for regulating and promoting positive social media use for children and youth: families, education, and government. In terms of the family, Subrahmanyam and Greenfield indicate that while more research is needed to determine how much parents know about their children’s use of electronic media, both adolescents and parents agree that youth know more about the internet than their parents do. The authors suggest that parents may be able to influence their children’s media use by monitoring through internet filters and by limiting their time and activity online.
Initiating change through education and government intervention is more complicated. Schools have begun to monitor or restrict access to social media but this is controversial because it may compromise the educational benefits of social media. And although some states such as Arizona and California have taken steps to introduce legislation that aims to reduce cyberbullying, as the Children and Electronic Media volume notes, “First Amendment considerations and the increasing reality that many media forms are exempt from government oversight makes broad regulation of content close to impossible.”
The volume continues, however, saying “although the government’s ability to regulate content may be weak, its ability to promote positive programming and media research is not. Government at all levels should fund the creation and evaluation of positive media initiatives such as public service campaigns to reduce risky behaviors and studies about educational programs that explore innovative uses of media.”
The message? When it comes to social media, content matters.
Although it may be difficult to combat cyberbullying through regulation, social media can be used as a tool to promote positive youth behavior. As the Children and Electronic Media volume reveals, media content designed to promote pro-social behavior increases social capacities such as altruism, cooperation, and tolerance of others – a powerful positive tool in efforts to reduce bullying of any kind.