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Pandora’s Box Meets the Sword of Damocles: Investigating and Preventing Cyberbullying

The increasingly disturbing issue of the cyberbullying phenomenon getting discussed and analyzed by InfoSec professionals David Kirkpatrick, Sameer Hinduja, Joe Sullivan, Jaana Juvonen and Mark Krause during RSA Conference US keynote.

David Kirkpatrick, the session moderator David Kirkpatrick: Welcome back from lunch and I’m told that you’re a very good audience, so I hope you will prove that in the coming 45 minutes. RSA has put together a superb session which I’m about to moderate, so could the panelists please join me onstage.

So, let me just quickly introduce these excellent panelists. We’re going to have what I think you’ll find to be a very interesting conversation.

Sameer Hinduja next to me is a professor at Florida Atlantic University – I didn’t bring your bio up. He runs a national cyberbullying centre, which is very influential and has done a lot of really excellent work.

Panel participants (left to right): David Kirkpatrick, Sameer Hinduja, Mark Krause, Joe Sullivan and Jaana Juvonen

Panel participants (left to right): David Kirkpatrick, Sameer Hinduja, Mark Krause, Joe Sullivan and Jaana Juvonen

Mark Krause is a lawyer who was formerly a federal prosecutor and is particularly pertinent for this discussion, because I’m sure many of you heard the story of the woman who taunted a friend of her daughter’s on Myspace a few years ago, and the friend ended up killing herself, and the mother of the friend who taunted the girl was prosecuted by Mark. Mark is now a lawyer at Warner Bros.

Next to Mark is Joe Sullivan, who is Head of Security at Facebook, which makes him an especially valuable panelist and we’re really happy to have him, and close to my heart, since my book is off the screen, but I spent a lot of time and still spend a lot of time thinking about Facebook.

Finally, Jaana Juvonen; Jaana is a professor at UCLA and a real expert in bullying, who’s really spent many years studying bullying offline and has now become an expert in online bullying as well.

So, just quickly, this session is sort of a follow-up to a session some of you may have seen 6 years ago in this very room on this stage at this conference, which was sort of an early effort to look at this question of: “What are the dangers of cyber space for children?” And at the time, the primary danger was perceived to be sexual predators, and that was the main thing we discussed.

It was pretty alarming, and there was a lot of interesting information, and I went and wrote an article about it afterwards at Fortune, where I currently worked at the time. But in the interim a lot has changed, and while sexual predators online remain a genuine concern, one of the things that has become quite apparent is that for all of the fears and concerns about that, the dangers there and the incident rate there is relatively small compared to a much greater set of risks and problems for young people, which is cyberbullying. And that’s the main thing we’re going to talk about today.

The thing about bullying and cyberbullying, as you’ll hear from the panelists, is that it does have real consequences. It’s a tremendous source of pain for young people. A lot of recent studies have found, documented the serious emotional damage that adults have when they’ve been bullied in childhood, and also when they were bullies in childhood, which is interesting.

And another interesting thing that I learned in preparing for this panel, which I didn’t know, is the significant percentage of bullies who are themselves bullied, and there’s sort of a lot of overlap there.

Kids are adopting new technologies when we’re figuring out the strategies for the old ones.

But a big thing that has changed since 2007, when I was up here moderating that last panel, is that at that time Myspace was still the dominant social network, and a lot of the discussion was about Myspace. Myspace, as you know, has essentially gone away as a social network. In the meantime Facebook has become the overwhelming centre of young people’s online activity.

And that has brought about another very significant change, because Facebook is an identity-based environment; therefore it isn’t as easy to hide who you are when you’re doing anything not so good on the Internet as it was before. So this identity-based nature of Facebook and the fact that people use their real name is a big deal.

One of the things also that is really a big part of today’s online landscape is that photography and pictures are a big part of the way that people bully each other when they’re teenagers or younger. And how you deal with that is something you’re going to hear a fair amount about on this panel.

Another final point, though, is that one of the things that makes this whole area so fraught, as I’m sure any of you who are parents and probably most of you realize, is that the kids in general are ahead of the adults on all this stuff, so no matter how aware we become and how careful and thoughtful we are in our efforts, they’re adopting new technologies when we’re figuring out the strategies for the old ones.

My own personal belief, and I don’t know how much we’ll discuss it on the panel, but the school system in general, all over the country, and, to some larger extent, the world, really has not gotten their arms around the degree to which children live in a digital environment.

And education per se, as it’s practiced broadly, is not educating our children nearly enough about the world in which they already live, which is a digitally infused one. So among the many things that schools don’t do – is do enough to teach kids about cyberbullying and a lot of associated things, like empathy, which is a whole another matter, but we’ll hear about that.

So, maybe, since I’ve just mentioned empathy, and it really isn’t a technical question, I guess I will start with empathy. Let me start with asking you, Sameer: you know, people presume, and a lot of articles say that we are in an epidemic of online bullying. Is that the way you see it? And how bad is the problem of cyberbullying for young people?

Sameer Hinduja: So, in the media there’s definitely been a lot of focus on this specific issue, primarily stemming from the fact that we’ve had some massive tragedies: you think about the suicide, you think about, again, the emotional and psychological damage that is occurring to teens following being bullied. And so everyone thinks that it is this epidemic, that it is spiraling out of control.

But when we look at the research, what we find is that the numbers are small, not incredibly small, but it’s a minority of students, a minority of youth. We find that it’s about 1 out of 4, 1 out of 5 of those who are 17 years of age and younger have been cyber bullied over the course of their lifetime. So, 20-25%, and when it comes to offending or being an online bully, it’s about 15 to 20% – so again, not spiraling out of control, but still a meaningful proportion of youth that definitely warrants us to address.

David Kirkpatrick: But I think you told me on the phone that the press is always calling you trying to get you to say that it’s getting worse. It’s not that it isn’t bad, though, right?

Sameer Hinduja: Right, and they’re also always looking for a direct link between, let’s say, bullying and cyberbullying and suicide. When we think of suicide, in fact, in the specific case studies, of course, there are horrific stories, but almost all of those youths have had something else going on in the background, such as dealing with psychosomatic illnesses, dealing with depression, being on psychotropic medication, so life is complicated.

We remember what it was like being an adolescent; we care so much about peers and their perceptions of us. We want to belong, we want to be popular, we want to fit in, plus, we’ve got other sorts of stresses related to our identity and our family situation, so this is a constellation of forces that affects our upbringing and affects how we deal with some of these problems in our lives.
 

Read next: Investigating and Preventing Cyberbullying 2: Lessons Learned from the Megan Meier Case

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