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What's the Definition of Cyberbullying? Not Surprisingly, Parents Disagree

The Shortof It

Is it simply bad online behavior or cyberbullying that warrants punishment? According to a report from University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, parents don't exactly see eye to eye on what constitutes cyberbullying. In fact, when a sample of parents of teens was surveyed regarding four hypothetical scenarios, there was very little consensus about whether it was bullying, and what kind of punishment should be meted out.

The Lowdown

The study asked parents about four different hypothetical scenarios—spreading a rumor about a student having sex at school, a social media campaign to elect a student to homecoming court as a joke, altering a photo to make a fellow classmate look fatter, or posting online rumors that a student cheated on a test. They were asked to assess whether it was cyberbullying, and what kind of punishment that behavior merited. For the first two scenarios, nearly two-thirds of parents agreed that it was bullying, but for the other two, the numbers were much smaller—less than half thought that it was. And parents were also split on what kind of punishments were warranted, with only 21 percent of parents feeling that the police should be involved when a scandalous sex rumor hits the internet.

Lead researcher Sarah J. Clark, M.P.H., associate director of the National Poll on Children's Health and associate research scientist in the U-M Department of Pediatrics, says that the varying opinions on cyberbullying and the consequences that should be meted out needs to be taken into account as lawmakers draft new laws. "Growing recognition of the dangers of bullying has prompted calls for tougher laws and school sanctions, but our poll shows the huge challenge in establishing clear definitions and punishments for cyberbullying. Schools should consider these differing opinions, to avoid criminalizing teen behavior that is hard to define and enforce consistently."

The Upshot

I know I'd consider any of the above scenarios cyberbullying (not surprising, as the study found that mothers were more likely to call each one bullying than fathers). But as for the punishment involved, it's hard to be so cut-and-dried—especially when things like the teen's age, past online behavior, its impact on the victim, and other factors should come into play when making that decision.

I know that as my tween takes her inaugural steps into smartphone territory soon, we'll be spending a lot of time talking about how to be a good internet citizen. And maybe it's time to drag out that old, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" saw for all of our kiddos.

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