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Parents Conflicted on Cyberbullying

Parents Conflicted on Defining, Punishing Cyberbullying

A new University of Michigan study finds that while many parents are concerned about cyberbullying, they may differ when it comes to actually defining it and determining appropriate punishments.

A social media prank intended to embarrass a classmate; spreading online rumors about peers; posting unflattering pictures of others — these may all be classified as cyberbullying. Or are they just normal digital teenage behavior? When does “mean” behavior by a teen cross the line to become cyberbullying? And, what should the consequences be?

Researchers polled a national sample of parents of teens aged 13-17, and asked the parents for their views on hypothetical situations.

The results may come as a surprise.

For example, a social media campaign to elect a student for homecoming court as a prank? Definitely cyberbullying, 63 percent say. Posting online rumors that a student had sex at school? The majority again, nearly two-thirds, say there’s no question that’s cyberbullying.

However, less than half of parents say sharing a photo altered to make a classmate appear fatter or posting online rumors that a student was caught cheating on a test were definitely cyberbullying. In nearly all cases, mothers were also more likely than fathers to label actions as cyberbullying.

“We know that parents are concerned about the harms of cyberbullying, but we wanted to learn if there was a consensus among parents about what actually constitutes cyberbullying,” said lead researcher Sarah J. Clark, M.P.H.

“What we found is that parents differ a lot when it comes to defining cyberbullying.”

Between 30-50 percent of parents are unsure whether the four hypothetical scenarios are cyberbullying, but less than five percent say they definitely are not.

Opinions about consequences were also mixed. Parents recommended the most severe punishments for posting online rumors about a student having sex in school. While 21 percent of parents felt referral to law enforcement was an appropriate punishment for a sex rumor, only five percent say spreading rumors about academic cheating should be reported to police.

“Not only are parents unsure about which actions should be considered cyberbullying. They also don’t agree on penalties,” Clark says. “Depending on the content of online rumors for example, parents recommended punishment ranging from making the student apologize to reporting the student to police.”

“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.”

Source: University of Michigan

Parents Conflicted on Defining, Punishing Cyberbullying

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Parents Conflicted on Defining, Punishing Cyberbullying. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 23 Sep 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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