Weekly Feature

2016-12-07 / Front Page

Study pegs cyberbullying as prominent issue in WNY


With the prolific use of social media in recent years, the ease and efficiency with which teens can abuse their peers online have skyrocketed, and according to a new study conducted by the Siena College Research Institute, AT&T and the Tyler Clementi Foundation, Western New York is not inoculated to the alarming trend.

(See editorial on page four)

About one in five teens in Western New York have been cyberbullied, and more than half of area teens have witnessed it being done to others, according to the survey’s results released last week, which finds that the issue of cyberbullying is a problem that affects the vast majority of youth in the area.

The Siena College Research Institute conducted 1,255 online interviews of students in grades six through 12 from across Western New York whose parents had provided explicit consent for their participation. SRI also conducted 1,048 online interviews with parents of students from the participating schools.

“Working with the Siena Institute, we specifically wanted to poll teenagers and parents to better understand their perspectives about cyberbullying and just how much of an effect it is having on the population,” said Marissa Shorenstein, New York State president of AT&T.

Key findings from the survey included that:

55 percent of teens reported they have witnessed cyberbullying.

More than half of parents reported having witnessed cyberbullying.

Nearly a quarter of area teens said their friends have been cyberbullied.

39 percent said they know other teens who have been bullied online.

10 percent told researchers they ignore it in part because they’re afraid of becoming the next victim. More than a third said they reach out to the victim, 30 percent try to do something about it and 12 percent report it.

The process by which SRI obtained the statistics came as a result of varied questioning to determine whether the respondents had been affected by cyberbullying either directly or indirectly. The survey asked students outright, “Have you been the victim of cyberbullying?” It also asked questions in regard to five types of bullying behaviors, which included:

Has anyone posted insulting comments about you?

Have you ever received threats online?

Has someone posted photos or videos of you that were meant to embarrass you?

Did you have someone spread rumors about you?

Has someone posted revealing photos of you?

If respondents answered yes to one or more of the questions, SRI identified the students as victims of cyberbullying.

The results of the study come at a time of heightened awareness of a trend that appears to be growing in both frequency and the damage it can cause. Earlier this month, an 18-year-old girl from Texas City, Texas, fatally shot herself in front of her family after months of prolonged cyberbullying from her peers. The teen’s mother stated that despite notifying the school district on several occasions about the abuse, they were told that the district was unable to take action.

For Western New York teens, online activity is a major part of everyday life, the recent SRI study shows. Roughly 91 percent of teens spend an hour or more a day with online videos or games, and 79 percent are online at least an hour a day socializing with their friends. About 82 percent of area parents say their child has their own smartphone.

Only 11 percent of local teens say their parents strictly monitor their online activities, while 45 percent say that while they have rules, they aren’t strictly enforced. Nearly one-third of teens say that their parents either aren’t very involved or simply have no idea what they are doing online. This disparity can often facilitate a dangerous divide when it comes to parents monitoring their children’s online habits.

“This happens with incredible rapidity, and it’s broadcast across a social network easily and quickly. So, in an instant, it feels to these kids as if their worlds have closed on them,” said Don Levy, director of the Siena Research Institute. “I think in many ways, the take-away from this study is that we as adults need to see that this is the world in which kids live.”

“I think one of the biggest findings, and as a parent myself it does make me think, is that parents are trying to talk about this issue with their teens, but there clearly is a disconnect,” added Shorenstein. “Teens feel that they’re not being monitored online in perhaps the way they should be.”

In terms of motivation, of those teens who had admitted to taking part in cyberbullying, most stated that they had done so as a joke or to get back at a peer. Physical appearance, sexual orientation and athletic ability were some of the key attributes of which bullies targeted.

“What we found is that kids begin to bully one another online for a whole list of reasons. It really comes down to anything that is different about someone can be used as the subject of cyberbullying,” said Levy. “In many cases, and in some ways maybe the most insidious, kids told us they participated in cyberbullying because they think it’s funny, or that they think it’s a joke or a game. They don’t think at first that they’re necessarily doing any harm.”

In recent years, AT&T has taken on a role as a purveyor of Internet safety. The company’s “It Can Wait” campaign has sought to address the issue of teens texting while driving, often leading to disastrous results on the road.

AT&T will launch a national program in 2017 for high school students featuring award-winning short films and documentaries produced by students from across the country for AT&T’s Cyberbullying Film Invitational. These films and documentaries are based on the students’ own experiences.

“This program will include teens speaking directly to their peers about their own personal experiences, whether it was overcoming cyberbullying, losing someone to cyberbullying or being a bully themselves,” said Shorenstein. “We’re also asking teens to take a pledge against cyberbullying to stem the tide, and we’re doing that through social media because that is really the language through which they speak.”

Shorenstein believes the road forward lies not necessarily through legislative efforts or administrative responses in reaction to incidents within schools, but through educating youth on the array of negative ramifications that can result from choosing to engage in online campaigns of abuse directed at one of their peers.

“We’ve found with the ‘It Can Wait’ texting and driving campaign, for example, that education is really the key,” she said. “When you show people the impact and the lives that are affected by these issues, it does change the behavior of people.”

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