Cyberbulling expert works to keep teens safe online

Safe OnlineThe details vary but the themes in the many e-mails, letters and calls fielded by Justin Patchin are sadly similar — someone has found a way to use technology to bully a teen, and no one around the teen knows how to stop it.

Cyber BullyingPreventing cyberbullying

Top 10 tips for parents

Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D. and Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D.
Cyberbullying Research Center

1. Establish that all rules for interacting with people in real life also apply to interacting online or through cell phones.

2. Make sure your school has Internet safety educational programming in place.

3. Educate your children about appropriate Internet-based behaviors.

4. Model appropriate technology use.

5. Monitor your children’s activities while they are online.

6. Use filtering and blocking software as a part of a comprehensive approach to online safety.

7. Look for warning signs that something abnormal is going on with respect to your children’s technology use.

8. Use an “Internet Use Contract” and a “Cell Phone Use Contract” to foster a clear understanding about what is appropriate and what is not.

9. Cultivate and maintain an open, candid line of communication with your children.

10. Teach and reinforce positive morals and values about how others should be treated with respect and dignity.

For additional information and valuable resources, visit www.cyberbullying.us.

With six-plus years of research on cyberbullying and an extensive list of contacts worldwide, Patchin often is able to help those who reach out to him.

 “I hear different versions of the same story over and over again,” said Patchin, an associate professor of criminal justice at UW-Eau Claire and an internationally known expert on cyberbullying. “The environments and the behaviors of the bullies change, but their intent is to make life miserable for someone else. It’s often the parents or the teachers I hear from looking for help, but sometimes it’s the teens themselves.”

“If I hear from a parent whose teen is being bullied on Facebook or MySpace, I have great contacts at both social networking sites, so I can usually have the page taken down within an hour or two,” Patchin said. “Sometimes I direct people to law enforcement officials or give parents advice about what to do or not do when their teen is being bullied. I spend a lot of time working with people one-on-one to try to help them.”

The co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, Patchin works hard to share current information and trends about online bullying with parents, teachers and teens so they can be better prepared to prevent, identify and address cyberbullying.

Patchin has given presentations to thousands of educators, parents and teens across the country, and he’s regularly interviewed by news media from throughout the world. He maintains a cyberbullying website, which includes a blog, a news feed and other features designed to get current information quickly to those who can use it. He also currently is a visiting scholar with the FBI, conducting research and training FBI staff on issues relating to cyberbullying.

“It’s not anything I ever envisioned,” Patchin said of his international profile as an expert on cyberbullying. “But this issue is something I feel passionate about because cyberbullying can do so much damage to an adolescent. Adults can be victims as well, but we focus on teens because they don’t have the same abilities to cope with these situations as adults do. For teens, the damage can be much more significant and long lasting. I spend a lot of hours on this, but I’m excited to do it. I take this work seriously. It’s very gratifying to be contributing in this way.”

“I hear different versions of the same story over and over again,” said Patchin, an associate professor of criminal justice at UW-Eau Claire and an internationally known expert on cyberbullying. “The environments and the behaviors of the bullies change, but their intent is to make life miserable for someone else. It’s often the parents or the teachers I hear from looking for help, but sometimes it’s the teens themselves.”

Among the challenges is staying current with constantly changing technologies and the latest online sites that are popular with teens, Patchin said. As new sites and tools become available, bullies find different ways to harass their victims, he said, noting that cyberbullying can take various forms, from obscene comments, photos or videos about someone on a social networking site to sending hundreds of text messages to a former friend whose cell phone plan requires him or her to pay extra for the texts.

“Cyberbullies can be very creative,” said Patchin, a member of UW-Eau Claire’s political science faculty since 2004. “They find a lot of different ways to cause someone pain. Technology keeps changing so we have to keep up.”

Patchin became interested in cyberbullying while a graduate student at Michigan State University. He was doing research on a variety of juvenile issues, as was another graduate student with whom he shared an office.

“We started comparing notes about what we were doing,” Patchin said of his connection with Sameer Hinduja, who now is an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “One of the things we talked about was teens misusing technology and that no one was studying it. At the time, we were busy with our graduate work so we set it aside. But in 2003, we did a small pilot study to see if cyberbullying was going on.”

Through their pilot study, they learned that cyberbullying was a serious problem for teens, that the teens who were being bullied weren’t telling adults about what was happening to them and that the victims were willing to provide details about the cyberbullying to the researchers.

“All of these findings were significant,” Patchin said. “But we were most surprised that teens weren’t telling their parents or teachers about what they were experiencing, yet they went into great detail about it with us. We knew then that there was a story to be told.”

Adults can be victims as well, but we focus on teens because they don’t have the same abilities to cope with these situations as adults do.  For teens, the damage can be much more significant and long lasting.  – Justin Patchin

Patchin and Hinduja have since completed several larger and more formal surveys of teens and have had their findings published in several academic journals.

“It was nice to be published in the journals, but we knew there was a larger audience we had to reach,” Patchin said of their research findings. “We needed to get information into the hands of the people who need it most: teens, parents and teachers. In 2005 we created a website where we could direct people to find statistics and research findings. After we started directing people to the website, things really took off.”

As interest in their work grew, they established the Cyberbullying Research Center, a comprehensive website that provides information about all aspects of cyberbullying. The site includes everything from downloadable Internet contracts for parents and teens to strategies for keeping teens safe online to tips for preserving evidence when cyberbullying occurs. It gets up to 1.5 million hits from 70,000 unique users a month, an indication that people around the globe consider it a valuable resource, Patchin said.

Patchin and Hinduja also have written a book, “Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying,” which recently received from ForeWord Reviews a Book of the Year award in the education category. They have two more books in progress.

While the website, books and media interviews are important, the researchers make it a priority to talk directly with educators, parents and teens about cyberbullying, said Patchin, who has visited nearly 30 Wisconsin schools in the last year and many more schools in states across the country.

Teachers, teens and parents all have responded favorably to the four presentations Patchin made at the middle school in Bloomer, a small town north of Eau Claire, said Barry Kamrath, the school’s principal and a UW-Eau Claire graduate.

“Cyberbullying is becoming more of an issue in our community as more teens have an online presence and cell phones,” Kamrath said of why he invited Patchin to the school. “I’ve heard several concerns from students and parents this year. Justin’s presentations were very beneficial. Many staff members and parents, who didn’t grow up with much of the modern technology, are thankful for the information. It’s particularly beneficial that Justin gives suggestions to parents and staff on how to address concerns they might have. As a principal, I’ve referred to his book — which we bought right after his first presentation — on several occasions. And after his presentations, several students had the courage to begin conversations with their parents or school personnel about issues they’d been experiencing.”

It’s encouraging that many schools now recognize that while cyberbullying often takes place outside of school, it negatively affects students’ ability to learn and succeed in school, Patchin said. Their research shows a significant overlap between cyberbullying and bullying that happens at school, he said, noting that often the teens doing the bullying in multiple environments are the same, as are the victims.

Almost always, the victim knows the person doing the bullying, Patchin said. The bully is typically a classmate or former friend, he said, adding that the familiarity is part of what makes cyberbullying so painful for teens. A random cyber attack from a stranger doesn’t have the same impact on a teen as does an attack from a classmate, he said.

“A decade ago, if a child made a rude comment in the hall, you might forget about it when you got home, and you could go home where you knew you wouldn’t be bullied,” said Kamrath, who uses Patchin’s book in a university-level course he teaches to aspiring principals. “Now, if a child texts you a rude comment, it goes with you on your phone, and they might text you again while you are at home. It is much harder for kids to find a safe place where they cannot be bullied. Cyberbullying also opens up a world of bullying to more students. No longer is it just the big, burly kids ‘shaking you down’ for your lunch money. Now anyone can text you something mean because they know they are not actually facing you in person, which tends to encourage kids to be more hurtful in their comments.”

Politicians and people working in the criminal justice system also have begun paying more attention to cyberbullying in recent years, especially after the media began reporting extensively on teen suicides that have been connected to bullying, Patchin said.

“There have been at least five teen suicides in recent years linked to cyberbullying,” Patchin said. “These cases tend to be high-profile, but they aren’t representative of most cyberbullying. I’m very sympathetic to the families, but some of what’s resulting from these cases isn’t necessarily good policies or laws. The same thing happened after the Columbine school shootings. There was a rush to pass laws, but they weren’t necessarily effective.”

Law enforcement officials who work within schools are paying especially close attention to the cyberbullying discussions and the new anti-bullying laws and policies, Patchin said. They often must determine if remarks made about teachers, administrators or other students fall within the range of acceptable criticism or if the comments are abusive or harassing, he said.

As part of his research with the FBI, Patchin is working with officers in schools to better understand how they view cyberbullying and how they think schools and law enforcement can best confront the problem.

Patchin said when he began his cyberbullying research several years ago there were few news stories about the issue. Today, there are hundreds of stories a day about cyberbullying in media throughout the world, he said. The media’s interest is encouraging a much-needed national discussion about bullying, Patchin said.

As a result of that discussion, more parents are becoming knowledgeable about technology, which is essential if they are going to guide and supervise their teens in the online world where they spend much of their time, Patchin said.

“It’s tempting for some parents to simply ban their kids from Facebook or other sites, but it’s not realistic,” Patchin said. “Kids can get online at a friend’s house or at the library. Technology is not going away, so the best thing parents can do is to become more technology savvy. We also need to get everybody — parents, law enforcement and teachers — on the same page about the seriousness of cyberbullying. Everyone needs to realize that cyberbullying is a serious problem and that it needs to be stopped.”

Patchin said while addressing cyberbullying is a challenge because of the changing technology, in one way it’s easier than dealing with traditional schoolyard bullying; cyberbullying can almost always be traced.

“In traditional bullying, it was usually one teen’s word against another’s when adults tried to figure out what happened,” Patchin said. “But now anything you do online leaves a digital footprint so it can be traced. When there is a problem, there usually is evidence to back it up.”

Photos by Bill Hoepner