Safeguarding Podcast – Cyberbullying and how to measure it

In this safeguarding podcast, Lucy Betts Associate Professor of Psychology of Nottingham Trent University, takes us through her “three-factor” scale of cyberbullying and cyber-victimisation, how a school’s well run anti-bullying policy can actually hide cyberbullying, and how someone can be a victim of cyberbullying without even knowing it.

If you prefer to read rather than listen, then there’s a lightly edited for legibility transcript below 🙂


Neil Fairbrother

Welcome, welcome, welcome to another edition of the SafeToNet Foundation’s safeguarding podcast. Today’s topic is cyberbullying and how to measure it. And to help us guide us through this, today’s guest is the Associate Professor of Psychology of Nottingham Trent University, Lucy Betts.

Lucy Betts
Thank you very much for the invitation to come along today to talk on your podcast.

Neil Fairbrother
Lucy, could you introduce yourself, tell us a little about your background, where you’re from or what your specialisms are, so that our audience has got a context of your expertise.

Lucy Betts
I work at Nottingham Trent University as an Associate Professor in Psychology, and my research area over the last few years has primarily focused on children and young people’s experiences of cyberbullying. And I’m also interested in bullying behaviours, more generally and having to take some work looking at young people’s experiences of harassment in public places.

But I guess the common theme that runs through all of this work is trying to understand those experiences of young people in terms of bullying behaviours.

Neil Fairbrother
Okay, thank you very much. Now to measure something, you need to have a clear idea of what it is that you’re measuring. Is there an agreed definition of cyberbullying, if that is what you’re measuring, and if there is a clearly agreed definition of cyberbullying, what is it? And if there isn’t an agreed definition, why not?

Lucy Betts
I think that’s a really, really good question and a really interesting place to start. If you think about face-to-face bullying, there is a really clear definition that Dan Olweus proposed back in the 1970s that includes the elements of intense repetition and harm and also a power imbalance between the target of the behaviour and the individual engaging in that behaviour. And over the years, researchers have really used that definition as a starting point for exploring face-to-face bullying. With cyberbullying, I think it’s much more complex.

Some researchers have agreed that you can take that definition and translate it straight across to the online and cyber worlds. However, cyberbullying has a number of unique characteristics that I think it’s really important to bear in mind when we’re trying to define it. So, for example, it’s really hard to determine a power imbalance as they would be in a face-to-face setting. Power can mean lots of different things in cyberbullying.

The element of repetition is also something that we perhaps need to think about in a slightly different way because is it a one-off image or video that has been viewed by many people or is it a sustained and repeated messaging targeting targeted at a specific individual? So, I think it’s important to recognise these differences and common to all of it is the impact that it has on the individual who is receiving those behaviours.

Neil Fairbrother
Now you are a prolific producer of papers and in one of them has an intriguing title, “A Large Can Of Worms”, focused on teachers’ perceptions of young people’s use of technology. And in that paper you say that children have a tendency to “anthropomorphize the internet”. What do you mean by that?

Lucy Betts
So, this is some work which was funded by the British Academy as part of a series of studies that were designed to try and develop a measure of cyberbullying. And as a start in this, we did focus groups with young people and also with teachers. These small groups of up to eight individuals and we asked the teachers questions about how they think young people are using digital technology and what they think cyberbullying is like and how young people experience it. The piece that you’ve picked out from this study was where teachers started to talk about how some young people see the internet as having human characteristics, as being a friend and as having its own personality, rather than being a tool to access information and all of the other things that we use the Internet for. Teachers were talking about how most of the students were saying that the Internet was their friend.

Neil Fairbrother
The Internet itself was a friend, not the other people that they interact with?

Lucy Betts
Yes, the Internet itself.

Neil Fairbrother
That is absolutely fascinating. What is it then that leads them to feel that way?

Lucy Betts
I think that’s quite hard question to answer because we were looking at teachers’ perceptions of how young people were using the digital technology. I think it could be to do with how young people can express themselves on the Internet and some of the freedom that they have, which is potentially very different from in the face-to-face world.

Neil Fairbrother
That makes sense. That sense of liberation perhaps, that sense of openness and exploration you can’t really do in the real world where you might be constrained by parental guidelines.

Lucy Betts
I don’t think it’s just parental guidelines, I think it’s also a broader changing of the norms of how people can interact online is very different from potentially how they interact in the offline world.

Neil Fairbrother
One of the techniques that you used in the analysis is, called IPA, or Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis, and you use that to gain an understanding of the participants’ “lived experiences”. But also you point out that no one outside of the experience of someone else can ever really comprehend the experience of that person. So how valid is this technique?

Lucy Betts
This technique is a way of analysing qualitative data and it’s been used extensively in psychology and it’s a way for us to try and understand people’s lived experiences of a particular topic, as you say, but we do have to recognize as researchers that you can never fully understand someone’s experiences because their experiences that are unique to them. So it’s really about using the technique with that awareness in mind and being sensitive to that when you conduct your analysis. So trying to stay true to what the participants were saying, but not putting your own interpretations on their experiences.

Neil Fairbrother
And that must be quite hard to do because of course we are the sum of all of our own experiences. So how do you disassociate yourself from your own experiences, and you don’t implant those, or imprint those onto your interpretations?

Lucy Betts
Through following the guidelines for that analysis, but also through very careful reading of the transcripts. So having done the focus groups, we transcribed them and then we started the analysis based on the transcripts. And it’s a case of when you’re trying to interpret what the participants are saying, going back to that data and making sure that you’re true to what they say rather than what you think they say and going through a process of checking.

Neil Fairbrother
If you’re reading a transcript of something, do you get the subtlety of inflection which can change your meaning and therefore skew the understanding?

Lucy Betts
That would depend on the type of analysis you’re doing, there are other techniques where you can explore exactly that.

Neil Fairbrother
Now, there’s been a substantial body of work researching bullying in the last 40 years. Research in bullying is not a new thing, or I guess it’s relatively new, 40 years isn’t that long really in scientific [research] terms, but cyberbullying seems to be attracting all the headlines. Partly I think because of the shocking tragedy of children as young as 11 or perhaps even younger committing suicide because of it. Did traditional bullying have the same awful consequences or is there something peculiar to cyberbullying? Why is it that cyberbullying is so much in the headlines as opposed to offline “regular” bullying?

Lucy Betts
Firstly is the question about whether suicide is unique to cyberbullying. I think it’s common across all types of bullying so it isn’t just something that is associated with cyberbullying. I think the question about why cyberbullying is in the headlines so much, could be to do with our understanding as adults of how we’re using the technology versus how young people are using technology. So young people constantly are changing their platforms which are the most relevant and the ones that are engaging with on a day-to-day basis. And I think for us to understand what they’re doing, we really need to work with them to see how they use social media and also digital technology.

I think the question around why there may be more severe consequences, again, I think that’s there in face-to-face bullying, but what I think is subtly different about cyberbullying compared to face-to-face bullying, if we think about a young person’s experience, if they were experiencing bullying in school when the school day ended, that would be the end of that. However, with cyberbullying that can be continual contact throughout the whole 24-hour cycle.

And some of my work has shown that it might not actually be the fear of receiving a message in terms of the content of the message that young people find distressing, but the fact that it could appear at any points during the 24-hour period. So there may be that elevated levels of concern [where they think] that I’m going to be on the receiving end of it.

I think when we also consider cyberbullying, it’s important to remember that with face-to-face bullying, maybe an event in the playground would just be seen by those physically present. But for cyberbullying, anybody can potentially witness that if it’s posted on a public forum, for example, and that record can also stay there for a much longer period of time.

Neil Fairbrother
Yes. So this is where the online context, so to speak, is intruding into the offline context. And the offline context is quite clearly delineated depending on where the child is at any given moment, whether at home or on the bus to school or at school or in the youth club or whatever. Whereas surrounding that almost is this perpetual level present online environment that never ceases, and at two o’clock in the morning, your child might be woken up by the phone going bleep and there’s a horrendous message.

Lucy Betts
Yes. And I think if we want to start to explore that as adults, one of the things I often get people to think about is the amount of technology they’re using. Do we ever switch our phones off at night?

Neil Fairbrother
Well I certainly do!

Lucy Betts
Ah! Well you’re probably in the minority… another thing is to think about how much technology is present in front of us currently. So we’ve both got two laptops and smartphones with us. Why should we start to expect young people not to do the same?

Neil Fairbrother
That is a very valid question. I’ve seen young children in a supermarket and they seem to me they have only just got their first smartphone, a girl would be maybe 10 or 11, and they’re proudly walking through with their smartphone and they keep looking at it and looking at it and it’s almost like a 21st century rite of passage, “My First Smartphone”. And suddenly you’re on social media and away you go.

Some of the research that you cite says that 80% of trainee teachers reported that they believe cyberbullying was a problem in school. Just over half of the trainee teachers reported they felt confident in identifying cyberbullying, but less than half reported feeling confident about actually tackling cyberbullying. What could be done to address this? How can we turn those less than 50% of teachers who are unable to do something into people who could help safeguard?

Lucy Betts
I’m going to approach this from a slightly different angle. I think the first thing that we would need to do is to actually work with young people to gain an insight in terms of what their experiencing, so that when working with the trainee teachers, they’re guessing the insight as it’s occurring now. We know social media platforms are continually evolving, popularity is changing. I think we would in an ideal world, want young people to act as advisors to help shape the messages that trainee teachers receive, because I think it’s important to also consider what is an effective strategy for dealing with cyberbullying. And I think we need to hear the young people’s voice in doing that.

Neil Fairbrother
It does seem on one level to be unfair to pin all this on the school, especially as a cyberbullying is not geographically limited to just the school, it’s wherever the child is. They can be on holiday in Majorca and still get the same issue. So, does the school have a role to play in cyberbullying outside of the school premises?

Lucy Betts
I think that is a very tricky question. It would depend, I think, if the cyberbullying is having an impact that is then translating into school. I know from some of the schools that I’ve worked with in the past, they’re very clear that if things outside of school are impacting on a young person when they’re in school, then they have a duty of care to deal with that situation, but they would do that in consultation with parents as well, as would be appropriate.

Neil Fairbrother
Okay. Now moving on to another paper that you published, along with a colleague Karen Spenser, you developed what you call a “three-factor scale” to measure both cyber-victimization as well as cyberbullying behaviours. What were the three factors and how did the three factors scales work?

Lucy Betts
This piece of research was conducted through two studies. In the first study, what we tried to do was based on our previous work with young people, we gave them a whole range of items that linked to experiences of cyber-victimization, so being on the receiving end and also bullying behaviours. And then through a process of statistical analysis, which I can say more about if you want me to, what we did was to refine those items down to two scales. So the first scale was a cyber-victimization experience scale. And within that were three subscales. The first looked at experiences of threats in cyber-world, the second was sharing images, and then the third one was experiencing gossip.

The other scale that we developed, we call a cyberbullying behaviour scale, because this focused more on the behaviours that children were in engaging in. And there were three subscales also but they were slightly different. They were sharing images, gossip, and personal attack. And we then did a follow-up study to validate these sub-scales.

Neil Fairbrother
Okay, so you’ve got a recipient and an instigator, And you’ve got in place two slightly different but overlapping scales to measure the severity, the impact?

Lucy Betts
It was to measure the behaviours they were experiencing or engaging in.

Neil Fairbrother
Okay. “Measure” does imply a value of some sort… small, medium and large, low, medium, high. What were the units? Did you come up with a unit of measurement?

Lucy Betts
So, what we did was to give them a “Likert scale”. So, we asked them to indicate using a five-point scale, the extent to which they’ve experienced either each of the behaviours, or the extent to which they’ve engaged in those behaviours, through electronic communication. And then what we did was to basically add all the scores together for victimization experiences and for bullying behaviours and then develop a total score.

Neil Fairbrother
Okay. And what did that tell you?

Lucy Betts
What that did was to give us an indicator of how much the young people were endorsing either the experiences of cyberbullying or the extent to which they were engaging in those behaviours.

Neil Fairbrother
Now in the report you talk about direct and indirect bullying, what’s the difference between those two?

Lucy Betts
So direct bullying would tend to be something that you could see and that you were aware of as the recipient of that behaviour. Indirect [bullying] may occur without that person knowing. So, for example, having a rumour spread about you when you’re not aware of that, or being excluded from a birthday party that everybody else had been invited to with the intent cause you hurt and you’re not aware that the birthday party is even happening.

Neil Fairbrother
Okay. So here you have an example of where someone might be a perpetrator but the victim has no knowledge that that bullying behaviour is carrying on. So in the measurement of that, the victim isn’t able to give a score, they’re a victim but they don’t know they’re victim so they can’t score it.

Lucy Betts
Yes, potentially. Again, this highlights one of the other complex issues around measuring cyberbullying in terms of who is the best person to ask. So, drawing comparisons to the face-to-face bullying research, some researchers have constructed measures that have asked peers to report on their classmates. In terms of experiences of bullying and involvement in bullying, my view is I think it’s really important to gain an understanding of what the individual child is experiencing, and how they’re interpreted in the behaviour and the potential impact that it has on them, rather than gaining others perceptions. However, the point you make is very valid. If somebody doesn’t know that that behaviour is happening, then how can they report it? But perhaps the chances are of somebody not knowing are quite slim, because everybody else may talk about it, or they may comment on their experiences.

Neil Fairbrother
Yes. You also say that people who report they are perpetrators of cyberbullying may be under-reporting what they’re doing. You refer to this as “social desirability”. So, there’s not only an issue perhaps with people reporting the victimization, there’s also potentially an issue with people reporting bullying, what did you mean by social desirability?

Lucy Betts
Okay. So social desirability, when completing questionnaires, is about trying to portray the answer that you think the person who is collecting that data wants, or what you think the broader social sphere thinks you should be saying. So, in terms of social desirability relating to engaging in bullying behaviours, if young people maybe are in a setting or a school that has a very clear anti-bullying message and they’re well aware of all those anti-bullying initiatives that are happening, they may not want to report what they’re actually doing because they may recognize that actually that’s not that desirable.

Neil Fairbrother
So you might end up with these unintended consequence that a very well defined, very well constructed, very well run and managed anti-bullying policy in a school is undermining your ability, your efforts, to measure it.

Lucy Betts
Potentially because, I suppose it would depend on the climate in which those disclosures and answers are being made. So, I’m not in any way trying to undermine all the fantastic work that’s being done around anti-bullying and anti-bullying initiatives, but if it’s a climate where perhaps giving the honest answer, if I’m engaging in this behaviour is going to lead to sanctions or to judgments or perceived judgments from others, then that may produce a sense of under-reporting.

The other thing to link social desirability and reports to cyber-bullying is, that if we think about how important digital technology is for young people, then some people who are using it may not report it because they fear that technology is going to be taken off them.

Neil Fairbrother
And that brings us into the Fear Of Missing Out, FOMO, which I think is quite a well-known phenomenon. In this report where you develop the three scales, you point out the incidence of cyberbullying peaking at around the age of 14 or at least you cite other research that suggest that. But if the minimum age of being on social media is 13m and if the medium is the enabler to this kind of behaviour, then is one solution simply to raise the minimum age of being on social media to 16 for example?

Lucy Betts
I’m not entirely sure that that would be a helpful way of trying to understand what this body of research is showing us. I think we need to be mindful when we’re looking at the data around prevalence rates, the questions that the young people were being asked in terms of their experiences of cyberbullying and their involvement in cyberbullying, and we know that prevalence rates can shift according to those questions.

So, if you’re asked to think about your behaviour over the last month versus over the last year or the last week or ever in your lifetime, you’re going to get very, very different answers to all of those questions. I think removing social media use from where it currently is, isn’t the answer. I think what we need to be doing is thinking about how we can educate and support young people to use social media in a positive way.

The other thing that’s worth noting here is that more recent research has started to show that cyberbullying continues into adulthood as well. And this may of course just reflect that cyberbullying as term introduced into academic literature in around 2003 and we’re now with the generation that has grown up moving into adulthood with technology use. So it could be the actually the prevalence rates and where the age peaks, changes.

Neil Fairbrother
It has become the new norm, even for adults?

Lucy Betts
Yes.

Neil Fairbrother
Okay. Talking about prevalence. How common is this, or is it an issue that has got so much media hype to it that we think it’s bigger than it is or is it actually a real problem?

Lucy Betts
I think the way to answer that question is to look at the methods that have been used to assess the prevalence. So prevalence rates – some studies have talked about 70% prevalence, other studies have reported much lower prevalence rates. There tends to be a group of studies that aggregate around 20% to 40%, but I think what we need to be looking at is the measurement in these studies and that period of time, as I said previously, that children, young people, adults are asked to reflect on, because that shifts prevalence.

Neil Fairbrother
A lot of the research papers that I read, yours included, are very detailed, very technical and possibly are open to easy misunderstanding, misinterpretation by a “generic” journalist. No disrespect to any journalists, but they may get the wrong end of the stick and generate a headline which is quite misleading… You’re nodding….

Okay. Now one of the emerging themes in your work is young people’s perception of risk of cyberbullying, let alone media, but young people’s perceptions. Is the risk for young people, is it really something that they need to fear about? Or are they actually quite safe?

Lucy Betts
Well, I think the messages that are coming out of some of my research is that young people recognize that cyberbullying exists, they know it’s out there, but they often tend to think that it’s not going to happen to them. It’s something that would happen to other people. And in some of the research that I’ve done, some of the young people were saying that when cyberbullying then does occur, it has a much greater impact on them because of this perception that cyberbullying is something that happens to other people.

We actually followed that up in a second study, and what we found was that A-level students, university students, and also adults, all consistently said that the people most likely to experience cyberbullying where people younger than themselves and that they themselves were safe. So they all said they weren’t going to experience cyberbullying, so they were at the lowest risk.

Now, we need to follow up in more research to try and understand whether this is actually a true reflection of their relative safety and their likelihood of experiencing cyberbullying relating to prevalence rates. But it could be this idea that with age comes wisdom. So [they think] I know how to stay safe, anybody younger than me is more likely not to have that knowledge, so therefore I think I’m relatively safe. I think it also links to this idea of “comparative optimism”, and also how we choose to engage with the world around us. Because if we thought every time we went online, we were going to be cyberbullied, would we then go online?

Neil Fairbrother
We probably wouldn’t, adults included I think. So finally, what conclusions have you reached with your study into the measurement of cyberbullying and cyber-victimization? What conclusions did you reach?

Lucy Betts
I think it’s really important that we hear the young person’s experiences, and we need to take into account the timeframe over which we’re asking them to reflect on, and also the types of behaviours that we’re asking them to report on as well.

Neil Fairbrother
Okay. Brilliant. Thank you Lucy Betts. That was absolutely fascinating. Very, very interesting indeed. Thanks for making so much time available. Thank you.

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