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Helping youth define ‘normal’ online

Oct 17, 2012 | Campaigns, National School Safety Week, Youth Safety

Electronic devices such as smartphones can make communication faster and more efficient, but can also easily become channels for aggressive, hurtful or harassing behaviours. In February 2011, the Canada Safety Council partnered with the Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network (PREVNet) to survey Canadian students, Grades 5 – 11, and gain insight into online behaviours among youth.

Researchers, parents, and teacher tend to assume that youth are more likely to morally disengage from their behaviour online. We assume youth think that saying and doing mean things online is less hurtful or meaningful because of the medium. However, results from the survey actually indicate that young Canadians show more positive beliefs about moral behaviour online than we would have expected, according to Ashley Murphy, a clinical psychology doctoral student working with PREVNet.

But cyber bullying is still occurring, and has negative impacts on targeted youth. Furthermore, there are a large number of youth who believe that “everyone is doing mean things online,” indicating that what youth believe about moral behaviour and what they think others are doing may not match up. Therefore, helping young people, parents and educators understand the true scope of cyber bullying, along with positive online behaviours, can change youths’ views on what is normal behaviour online. This can be a starting point for cyber bullying prevention and intervention.

Concerning results

The study, titled Electronic Behavior: The Good, the Bad, and the Harm, reveals that five per cent of the youth surveyed admit to having bullied someone online. Twenty-two per cent report having been victimized online. Over three quarters indicate they were not bullied online within the previous four weeks, while just over eight per cent report having been the target of cyber bullying two or more times each week.

Common forms of electronic aggression include negative comments on pictures and websites, or honest but hurtful comments via ‘honesty boxes” on websites or social media. Youth also report engaging in socially aggressive digital behaviour by using texts and instant messaging, and spreading rumours online.

Much like when bullying occurs in the schoolyard, there are usually onlookers to online bullying. This is referred to in the study as Secondary Electronic Aggression – youth aren’t directly engaged in the bullying, but instead spectate by visiting a website with negative content, promote the website for others to visit, or publicize that they approve of the cyber-bullying site by signing an online guestbook. The study found it was more likely, however, for youth to engage in electronic secondary aggression if their activity was not easily traceable online.

Youth have strong emotional reactions to experiences online. Youth were given situations that occur online and those that occur in school or at home and asked to rate how ashamed and guilty they felt in response to these potentially mean or hurtful situations. Youth reported more shame and guilt online than at home or school. This may mean that youth are having strong emotional reactions online, which may be contributing to the problem of cyber bullying by allowing conflict to escalate online.

Positive points

The survey’s good news is that positive electronic behaviours are very common, much more so than the negative behaviours. Many youth use their online experiences for good by engaging in kindness and sharing behaviours, such as staying in touch with friends and families living far away (65 per cent) and saying nice things online that they would not say in person (40 per cent). Having online communication channels provides opportunities for young people who are shy to take their time to find the words and express themselves. This is apparent in other positive behaviours, such as telling friends that they are cared about (33 per cent) and sharing videos and pictures to cheer people up.

The survey reveals that young people offer a strong support system for their peers experiencing cyber bullying. Twenty-eight per cent of young people report comforting a targeted person, and 24 per cent say they provide supportive comments to people who have been cyber bullied. Youth are less likely (19 per cent), however, to encourage their peers to talk to an adult about the bullying. This should be concerning to parents and teachers because adults can help in these situations, but the only way for them to truly know what is happening is for youth to feel comfortable enough to share their experiences.

Recommendations for combatting cyber bullying

Youth are often the first users of any emerging technology, which affords them the daunting responsibility of developing a code of conduct for what is acceptable behaviour in these new social spaces. Developing this code doesn’t happen in isolation, however, and is not without input from outside sources. Parents, teachers and other adults model behaviour that children and youth project, whether online or in the real world.

Online conduct needs to observed, understood and corrected by discerning young people and adults who can offer unique solutions to unique online problems; these are the people who can communicate that the social world online is as important and “real” as social interactions in the classroom. Combatting any bullying, including cyber bullying, requires a problem-solving, preventative approach that involves youth, parents, teachers, school staff and community partners.


–       Recognize and reinforce positive online behaviour to help youth understand what constitutes normal and acceptable activity online. Providing rewards such as small scholarships or class rewards for positive behaviour can reinforce the importance of being a positive online citizen.

–       Often, negative comments and posts online are the electronic expression of intense negative emotions. Youth need support to learn how to manage and express their emotions appropriately, as well as develop and express empathy for others. Teaching relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, counting to three before typing, etc., can help keep youth from impulsively saying something they don’t mean.

–       Teach youth how to safely navigate the online world. This may involve educating yourself about what’s out there, and teaching them about privacy settings for online accounts.

–       Ask questions. Being aware of what youth are doing online is the starting point for knowing how to respond and provide assistance.

–       If a young person tells you that cyber bullying is happening, listen carefully and empathetically. Let them know that they have been heard. Document the incident and be open and honest, reassuring the youth that reporting the incident was the right thing to do. As necessary, meet with the child’s parents and other teachers, and refer him or her to the police or website administrators. Following-up and continuing to check in with the youth will help him or her see you as an ally and a resource in the event of future online problems.


For more information, please contact:

Ashley Murphy-Legate
MSC. Clinical Psychology, Queen’s University (Doctoral Candidate)
PREVNet: (613) 533-2632 or Toll Free (866) 372-2495

Catherine Benesch
Communications/Media Program Coordinator, Canada Safety Council
(613) 739-1535 (ext. 228)

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