Photo caption: Dr. Justin Patchin and his research partner worked with Cartoon Network to study tweens and cyberbullying.
Dr. Justin Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and his research partner, Dr. Sameer Hinduja of Florida Atlantic University, collaborated with Cartoon Network to survey tweens across the United States about their online activities and their experiences with cyberbullying. The study was launched as part of Cartoon Network’s award-winning Stop Bullying: Speak Up initiative.
Cartoon Network will use the findings to create initiatives aimed at helping tweens, parents and others tackle cyberbullying and related issues.
Collaborating with Cartoon Network
Patchin says representatives from Cartoon Network contacted the Cyberbullying Research Center in spring 2020 to suggest collaborating on research about tween cyberbullying. The researchers were intrigued because while they and others have done research on cyberbullying in youth ages 12-17, they were not aware of anything that had been done to determine what is happening with tweens, he says.
“This is the first systematic effort to study the experiences and behaviors of tweens as a distinct group using a national sample,” Patchin says. “Cartoon Network is doing its part to illuminate and understand the experiences of this vastly understudied population.”
In response to the research, Cartoon Network has created its first-ever, parent-targeted social content illuminating key findings from the study along with tips from the Cyberbullying Research Center for parents to help their children identify and stand up to cyberbullying. Additional support for parents from top professionals in the field, along with the full research report, are available on Cartoon Network's Stop Bullying: Speak Up website.
“It was especially important for us to collaborate with the Cyberbullying Research Center on this critical research as tweens head back to their virtual classrooms, spending more time on digital platforms than ever before,” says Tricia Melton, chief marketing officer of Warner Bros. Global Kids, Young Adults and Classics. “Cartoon Network will use these findings to help equip kids, tweens and parents with the tools they need to stand up to cyberbullying.”
Of the 1,034 tweens who responded to the survey, nearly 80% had some exposure to bullying in person or online as a target, aggressor or witness. The study found that one in five (21%) tweens have experienced cyberbullying in some way by witnessing cyberbullying (15%), having been cyberbullied themselves (15%) or by cyberbullying others (3%).
“We really didn’t know what to expect because no one else has surveyed this age group about their experiences with cyberbullying,” Patchin says. “We learned a lot, including that 9-12-year-olds are experiencing cyberbullying, often on popular social media apps and games, in ways that are consistent with what is happening with older teens.
“It’s a little lower than what we’ve found with older teens but it’s in the ballpark. Kids are experiencing it and they are seeing it.”
Cyberbullying is defined as the “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cellphones and other electronic devices.” Cyberbullying often appears as hurtful social media posts, mean statements made while gaming, hate accounts created to embarrass, threaten or abuse, or similar forms of cruelty and meanness online.
Over the last 15 years, research on teens has shown that teens who have been cyberbullied or who cyberbully others are more likely to struggle academically, emotionally, psychologically and behaviorally.
The survey of tweens shows they are having similar struggles when experiencing cyberbullying. Of the 15% of tweens who have been cyberbullied, 94% said it had a negative impact on them, including on their feelings about themselves, their friendships and schoolwork.
“It’s definitely something we need to take seriously,” Patchin says of the impact on tweens.
Growing number of tweens have mobile devices
Among the most surprising findings in the survey was the large number of tweens who have their own mobile devices, Patchin says. 21% of 9-year-old survey respondents reported having their own smartphone, while 68% of 12-year-olds have their own mobile device.
Ninety-two percent of the tweens have used one or more of the most popular social media and gaming apps. Two-thirds have used YouTube in the last year, while almost half have played Minecraft or Roblox.
The survey also found that during the coronavirus pandemic, 90% of all 9- to 12-year-olds are using social apps, such as connected games and video-sharing sites in which they interact with others online.
Tweens try to stop cyberbullying
There was some encouraging news in the survey findings, especially in how tweens react when they are victims of or witness cyberbullying, Patchin says. About two-thirds of tweens are willing to step in to defend, support or otherwise assist those who are bullied at school and online when they see it.
“Tweens are helpers; they often try to stop cyberbullying when they see it,” Patchin says. “It’s encouraging that many do try to help others, and many try to stop it themselves or ask for help. We also see many tweens intervening or reporting when they see bullying behaviors online.”
Tweens try to stop cyberbullying in a variety of ways: 60% of the tweens who had been cyberbullied blocked the aggressor; more than half told a parent; 42.8% ignored the person; 29.8% reported the incident to the app; and 29.6% simply took a break from the device.
An impressive number of tweens also reported acts of kindness toward others online, such as helping a new player who was joining an online game, Patchin says.
Some tweens did say they were reluctant to intervene when they witnessed cyberbullying because they were afraid they would make the bullying worse or they did not know how to intervene appropriately.
“Overall, results from this research show that most tweens are kind and willing to help when they see abuse online, if they know what to do and how to do it,” Patchin says. “Getting an accurate picture of the scope of the issue in this age group can help parents and other adults better respond and make sure kids know what to do if they see people misbehaving online.”
Parents have a critical role to play in helping their children navigate these difficult situations, Patchin says. If a child is cyberbullied, parents must first make sure they are safe and give their child unconditional support, he says. Parents and tweens should have a shared goal of getting the cyberbullying to stop while not making the child’s life more difficult, he says.
“Youth are often afraid that parents will make matters worse by calling the parent of the aggressor or setting up a meeting with the school principal,” Patchin says. “It is so critical to validate their voice and perspective. Targets of cyberbullying and those who observe it must know for sure that the adults they tell will intervene rationally and logically, and — most importantly — not make the situation worse.”
Adults need to cultivate and maintain open lines of communication with their tweens and teens so they will ask for help when needed as they navigate their increasingly connected world, Patchin says.
While the study provides researchers with good information about tweens and cyberbullying, more work needs to be done with tweens, Patchin says, noting that it is becoming even more important as COVID-19 continues to push even more tweens online for longer periods of time.
“We definitely are going to continue to work to better understand online experiences of this population,” Patchin says. “We will try to establish trends and dig a little deeper.”
Their current research will serve as the anchor to Cartoon Network’s 2021 Stop Bullying: Speak Up campaign, which will include original PSAs throughout the year to reach over 100 million homes across the country and kid-centric resources developed in partnership with PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center. As part of AT&T’s commitment to digital safety and well-being, AT&T contributed financial support for this research and will continue to add resources to ScreenReady.com to help parents manage their families' online experience, stay informed of digital hazards and practice healthy digital habits.
Cartoon Network also will collaborate with a collective of ed-tech startup leaders participating in the AT&T Aspire Accelerator to empower online positivity within their platforms and programs as they shape the future of education in this era of distance learning. You can read more about the study and its findings here.