Cyberbullying still rare, Toronto student survey shows

File photo. AP Photo

TORONTO – Cyberbullying has been everywhere in the news for the most wrenching of reasons.

But Toronto teens say they’re still more likely to get teased, taunted or gossiped about in real life than bullied online.

In a census that polled over 71,000 Toronto District School Board high school students in 2011, 8% said they had experienced cyberbullying – defined as bullying by text, e-mail or social media.

Almost all other forms of bullying are more common: 31% of respondents, for example, reported “insults or name-calling;” 14% reported threats of physical harm.

Physical violence, on the other hand, appears rarer: 7% reported physical bullying by a group, and 9% by an individual.

(Students in grades 7 and 8, polled in a separate survey, reported higher rates of physical bullying – 12%)

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Global News obtained the data from the Toronto District School Board under access-to-information laws.

The board asked students whether they had experienced several types of bullying behaviors, from threats to name-calling to gang violence. There was little change from the percentages seen five years before, in 2006.

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That eight per cent still represents more than 2,000 high-school students across Toronto who say they’ve been cyberbullied. And both teens and researchers say it’s possible the smaller figures are simply due to under-reporting.

But as parents and educators struggle to come to grips with stunning cases of online malice, they may be focusing too much on medium, rather than message.

“It’s very easy to focus on the technology,” says Faye Mishna, head of the University of Toronto’s Factor Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.

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“You really need to create an environment that’s safe. … An environment that facilitates bystanders saying something.”

The figures in this school board census correspond with the preliminary findings of a three-year study Misha is working on: The study of 683 Toronto students in grades 4, 7 and 10 found that while almost a quarter (24%) said they were bullied “traditionally,” 10% said they’d been cyberbullied.

“I think because [cyberbullying is] distributed and everybody sees it, you see the impact. And then I think things get simplified,” she said – for example in suicides that are often linked, by media reports after the fact, to all-too-public online torment.

The numbers imply that the great majority of Toronto teens – 93% of whom say they spend at least some time online daily, with 89% reporting daily use of a social networking site such as Facebook or Twitter – lead their digital lives with no serious problems.

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“I think, nowadays, a lot of individuals are dealing with their issues face to face rather than … online, because a lot of people can’t get away with it,” said Jarvis Collegiate student Manelle Karem.

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“There was a moment where a lot of people did it online because they didn’t have to deal with the consequences. … A lot of people went back to the traditional way of dealing with things – not so physical, but verbal – a lot of gossiping.”

Cyberbullying can seem potentially easier for adults to deal with, says Emily Bazelon, a journalist who has written extensively about bullying: An electronic trail creates ostensibly objective evidence to unresolvable claims and counterclaims.

But that carries its own traps, Bazelon warns.

“It can be misleading. Just because you have some digital evidence doesn’t mean you have the whole picture,” she said. “And the digital evidence can loom very large, and it may not give you the whole context for what happened. What if one kid is being horrible to another kid for a month, and the second kid finally snaps and trashes the first kid online? You’re going to get the wrong idea about who the bully is. “

One thing is certain, Bazelon said: “We are not having an epidemic of bullying or cyberbullying. We should not be alarmed in a new and terrifying way. But cyberbullying is changing the experience of what it is like to be bullied, both for victims and for the kids who bully, in ways that are worse for everybody.”

A cyber-bullied student doesn’t get away from his or her source of torment by going home; and someone seen as an aggressor can’t read reactions and facial cues online.

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“As humans we rely on the feedback we get: When you say something positive, when you say something negative, you can see in someone’s body language how that’s affected them,” said York University professor Debra Pepler.

Once you’ve pressed “send” on a Facebook post or text message, she added, “it’s very hard to recall it and to repair that damage.”

Research at the Queensland University of Technology suggests that cyberbullying, though rarer than in-person verbal bullying, may be more psychologically damaging.

“There is more humiliation involved in cyberbullying, as there is a potential limitless audience seeing the target’s degradation,” professor Marilyn Campbell explained by e-mail. “There is more power in the written word and images, which can be re-read and cause more humiliation.”

Cyberbullying “can be relentless day and night,” she says.And if the perpetrator is anonymous, that makes it worse.

Jarvis Collegiate student Xavier Gordon isn’t all that surprised that cyberbullying stats aren’t higher.

“You don’t have to deal with the face-to-face confrontation when you do it online, but it’s a lot easier to walk up to somebody and be like, ‘Oh, you’re stupid, you’re a waste’ – a quick ‘screw-you’ and run away,” he said.

So why the focus on bullying’s online aspect?

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“You know how the government has a habit of hyping up a lot of things,” he began, then paused. “I guess their campaign kind of worked, ‘cause it’s not happening as much as we thought it was.”

For the Toronto District School Board, cyberbullying is still “an emerging field in terms of bullying, said Ted Libera, the board’s Safe and Caring Schools Administrator. And they’re still hammering out policies on both board-wide and school-specific levels.

But administrators are prepared to step in even if it means encroaching on territory that isn’t strictly school property.

“Under the Education Act, principals can investigate incidents of bullying, cyber-bullying or other incidents that occur and affect the school climate,” Libera said. “The principal does have reach into sort of non-school times and off school property. … And principals, when that’s brought to their attention, will investigate and work with both the student and the family on both sides of that altercation.”

The solution may lie in something much more elementary, Pepler argues.

“I think there’s a lot to be said about teaching young people about healthy relationships in general. We need to have constant conversations about what a good relationship is – both online and offline.”

With files from Marianne Dimain and research assistance from Elton Hobson

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