Much of the information for this week’s post comes from a recent webinar presentation called “Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Advice for Parents to Prevent Cyberbullying” by Dr. Justin Patchin, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, author and director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.


Cyberbullying seems to have become every bit as real in the everyday life of teens as any flesh and blood bully, perhaps even more so. With technology reaching into every aspect of public, personal and home life, cyberbullying can seem like a voice repeating negative things directly into your teen’s head and, at the same time, shouting them out to everyone else.

What is cyberbullying?

A misperception exists that every insult received online is an incident of cyberbullying. A communication can be very unpleasant and extremely hurtful and, yet, not be bullying. Bullying must be intentional and repetitive. Author Trudy Ludwig has a great way of illustrating the distinctions:

Something unintentionally hurtful that is done once = RUDE
Something intentionally hurtful that is done once = MEAN
Something that is repeatedly, intentionally hurtful (even when told to stop or when the
individual is upset) = BULLYING

If Cyberbullying is such a problem, why don’t teens just turn the technology off?

  1. Teens need privacy from adults
    Teens have long sought privacy from adults. Interacting with peers is one way for teens to develop their identity and build social skills. However, the days of hanging out at the local malt shop or 7-11 parking lot are long gone and teens are now “plugged in” to their technology and “hanging out” online. Even if they weren’t, parents are significantly more protective and involved in their teen’s lives today than ever before, often preventing teens from being teens without close scrutiny. Teens who have grown up in a world saturated with technology have naturally turned to this tool for space and social interaction. Danah Boyd, in her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, calls the various online “meeting spaces” that teens create “networked publics”. Boyd explains,“Teens’ desire for privacy does not undermine their eagerness to participate in public. There’s a big difference between being in public and being public.”
  • Technology is an integral part of teens’ lives
    It is easier for parents and teachers who have not grown up with technology infused into every aspect of their lives to think of daily life without technology. If you are over 30 years old, you likely remember a time before the Internet existed. To your child this is a horrifying thought. My mother remembers a time when it wasn’t uncommon for country folk not to have indoor plumbing. Her family lived with an outhouse and no running water for several years when they moved out of town. She has the skills and the knowledge to cope without plumbing if she must. I, however, would be appalled at the prospect.
  • Technology changes communication patterns in subtle, but distinct ways
    Speaking to someone through technology is much less” filtered” than speaking to them face to face. It is much easier to be cruel to someone online than it is in person. Not being in the same physical space as someone else, not seeing their facial expressions or their emotions allows teens to write things online that they would never say to someone in person. When they do say something harsh, there is no immediate feedback from other’s non-verbal communication to let them know that they have crossed the line. Furthermore, communication can have unintended consequences. It is much easier for things written online to be misinterpreted. It can also be impulsively shared at the click of a key with a huge number of persons for whom the communication was not intended. The following video provides a very eye opening representation of how horrifying things posted online would seem if they were shared face to face.

  • Turning off the technology doesn’t necessarily solve the problem
    Dr. Patchin describes technology as provoking “limitless vulnerability”. Just because a teen turns the computer off at home does not mean that she will not have to deal with it at school, work or other social spaces. Even when the teen does not engage in it, doesn’t prevent others from doing so. Sadly, communication through technology is so pervasive that complete strangers could re-ignite the issue at any time. Luckily, there is such a huge volume of communication that the length of time any one item remains of interest is, most often, limited. In addition there is the irony that technology can provide for teens at the same time it is causing them distress. Removing access to technology could actually be harmful if it also cuts potential ties to supportive outlets where teens can freely express their troubles, receive empathy and support or connect with positive/inspiration people or messages. Given how much youth use technology as a social tool, removing it could be isolating for a teen at the very time that they need the most support.

Technology is here to stay. For the most part it enhances our lives and makes them easier and more pleasurable. Technology provides your teen with countless new ways to explore and interact with the world. However, all exploration has potential for peril. Next week’s post will talk about how you can help your teen minimize the risks of technology.

Article by Becky Mather

Becky is an Outreach Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Much of her work centers on parenting education and adolescent development. She and her husband are the parents of two young adults and a pre-adolescent. Becky is a Certified Family Life Educator.