Formal comments on cyberbullying and sexting at the NCPC Event


I greatly enjoyed being a part of a distinguished panel of guests at the National Crime Prevention Council’s Circle of Respect event on Friday, January 15th in Washington, DC. Speaking alongside Deborah Norville (the anchor of Inside Edition), Chris Moessner (a very experienced researcher and Senior Vice President with Stewart and Partners), Rachel Simmons (author of Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl), and Rosalind Wiseman (author of Queen Bees and Wannabees) was extremely enjoyable and enlightening.

Ann M. Harkins (National Crime Prevention Council’s President and CEO) emceed the event and it really was perfect how each speaker’s contribution led smoothly into the next contribution, and how together they built a comprehensive picture of the relevant issues surrounding bullying, relational aggression, cyberbullying, sexting, and respect.  All of my fellow panelists knew their stuff, and it was refreshing that no one shared cliched statements about Internet safety that everyone already knows.  What was shared was based on critical and original thoughts, and I loved that.

You can view the video of the event in its entirety here, cued up to my talk.  We then opened it up for Questions and Answers from the audience.

The majority of my prepared remarks are below.  We only had a few minutes to cover a great deal – and so I was constrained in all that I would have liked to say.  To note, I also covered the concept of social norming as a solution in reducing the misuse of technology by youth, but I want to save those sentiments for an expanded and exclusive blog entry in the very near future.


Thank you for the opportunity to be on this panel of distinguished guests, and to be able to share with you on the topics of cyberbullying and sexting.  Adolescents have been bullying each other for generations. The latest generation, however, has been able to utilize technology to expand their reach and the extent of their harm. This phenomenon is being called cyberbullying, which we define as: “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”  In general, cyberbullying is bullying carried out using these technologies.

In our research, we have found that:
•    Approximately 15-35% of youth have been victims of cyberbullying
•    About 10-20% of youth admit to cyberbullying others
•    That girls are just as likely, if not more likely, to be involved in cyberbullying as boys
•    That involvement seems to peak in the middle school years (grades 6-8)
•    And that most victims know, or at least think they know, who the cyberbully is.

Our research studies have consistently demonstrated that cyberbullying bears significant real-world consequences.   Specifically, we have found that cyberbullying leads to negative emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration, and fear, which have been linked to delinquency and interpersonal violence among youth.  Cyberbullying has also been tied to low self-esteem and suicidal ideation, problems with academic achievement, substance use and abuse, traditional bullying, carrying a weapon to school, and other forms of school violence.

I have also been asked to speak about the phenomenon of sexting.  We define sexting as “youth rendering themselves vulnerable to emotional, psychological, and physical victimization through the posting and sending of sexually-explicit or sexually-suggestive text, images or video.”

The actual extent of sexting among youth is somewhat unclear when looking across existing studies, and varies depending on how sexting is defined, whether it includes only cell phone use or other forms of online communication, the specific age group studied, and the study’s methodology and sampling.  We have seen estimates as low as 4% and as high as 19% for the proportion of youth who have sent a sexually suggestive picture or video of themselves to someone else.  We have seen estimates as low as 15% and as high as 31% for the proportion of youth who have received a sexually suggestive picture or video from someone else.  Our Cyberbullying Research Center is currently collecting data from a random sample of middle- and high-schoolers this week and next week, and will then be able to share with you a demographic and personality profile of those most likely to participate in sexting, contributive factors that make some youth more susceptible than others, and the range of consequences that can befall victims.

Sexting is largely an adolescent development issue.  Youth seek to figure out who they are and what they stand for during this tenuous period of life, and the process by which this occurs is greatly dependent upon cues from their social environment.  That is, peer perceptions and cultural norms are a large determinant in their own self-worth.  As such, adolescents often seek to present themselves to their peers in a way that attracts positive attention and increases social status.  This then serves to meet their inherent needs for affection, affirmation, and validation.

A teenage girl might hesitate for a moment when asked to send a semi-nude or nude picture of herself to a boyfriend or boy she’s interested in, but if it may improve that boy’s perception of her and consequently her perception of herself – and if it is deemed socially acceptable – she may do it.  This problem is exacerbated by the incessant cultural messages that describe and promote teen sexuality in arguably unhealthy ways – where “hooking up” may be preferred over “dating”, and where having personal privacy boundaries is viewed as “old-school” and “lame.”  My fellow panelists have keenly pointed out that respect – especially self-respect, or the lack thereof – also perpetuates this problem.

A few states are using traditional child pornography statutes to prosecute youth who engage in sexting.  Many argue these actions are outside of the original intentions of legislators who formulated the laws to prosecute adults who prey on youth.  Others believe that such strict interpretation of existing law is necessary in order to prevent tragedies like the Jesse Logan case from Ohio and the Hope Witsell case from Florida, both recent suicides stemming from sexting.

Similarly, school districts are seeking to reduce sexting through formal policies.  Based on my experience working with youth, and having been a youth myself, I don’t believe that formal law and policy is the best way to go – because adolescents tend not to be deterred by rules and laws.  It just doesn’t work as well as we would like to think.  I also don’t want the presence of law and policy to take the place of purposed educational efforts to teach teens about the responsible use of technology.  This sometimes happens when laws or policies are implemented as a way of quickly “dealing” with an issue, without understanding its fundamental causes.

I believe in the need for education and outreach to change prevailing social norms regarding what is acceptable and unacceptable in the minds of youth.  I feel that our prevention and response efforts are going to be less than ideal if we cannot effectively counter what society is hammering into the minds of adolescents.  If the dominant message our kids are hearing is that teen sexuality leads to romantic love, personal fulfillment, popularity, and celebrity status with very little (if any) public or personal fallout, youth will continue to push the proverbial envelope and the line between right and wrong in this area will be increasingly obscured.  I believe that social norming can counter this, and can help youth cultivate a deeper measure of self-respect.  This will serve as an insulating factor against participation in sexting and help them to stand firm when faced with very strong peer and cultural pressures.

I am pleased to be partnering with the National Crime Prevention Council in their far-reaching efforts to address the problems of cyberbullying and sexting, and believe that together we are making a very tangible difference through research, education, and outreach.   Thank you for your time and attention.



  1. It is time these very important subjects, cyberbullying and"sexting" were brought to the forefront of attention in ALL school systems and to ALL parents. Serious problems cannot and will not be solved without first acknowledging and learning there is a problem. Congratulations for getting these serious problems brought to the attention of all who attended the event or read about it. You are so right about a lot of these behaviors being culturally reinforced and peer pressure related. Keep up the good work!Just the fact you were invited to speak means the word is spreading and your work is successful.Tweens and Teens must learn that culturally reinforced behaviors like "being sexy", engaging in sex and other adult behaviors are just that- adult behaviors. Teens also need to get much more respect and self- esteem from the family unit so they will not seek it elsewhere.It is through continued work and research like yours that we ( meaning parents like me) may someday lessen or distinguish these behaviors that are so damaging to tween and teens. Damage they don't or won't even understand or come to term with for years.

  2. If the sending of photos is consented to then that changes the context. It is reasonable to assert such sexting is not. This is common behaviour amongst school children in Australia. I would argue adult to adult sexting that is not consented to also goes on. But when not consented to the context does become bullying. It is bullying because the intent is likely to cause shame, embarrassment and future harm. In our societies justice for defamation is denied due to cost. Therefore, it is important to discuss this so that the person who has had it done to them can manage their reputation and emotions.

    Like any topic, drink driving for example, education and policy, not law, tends to be effective in curbing such activities. This is adult behaviour from those that are unaware of the consequences to themselves and the victims in terms of self-worth and future behaviours. Whilst schools have much work for them to deal with social and educational issues, the widespread and frequent occurrence of this makes it a priority to address. As the previous poster says it starts with primary family or care providers to encourage self-esteem and correct behaviours such as the temptation to bully others.

  3. I so hear you, Sameer, on social norming as part of the solution (possibly as part of digital literacy and citizenship instruction, but also throughout the curriculum, if we can just get social media as instruction tools in school)! In a major speech this morning, Sec. of State Clinton spoke of the need to "create norms of behavior among states." Absolutely! But also among children (I blogged about this here. I wish more ppl, especially online-safety advocates, parents, educators, and policymakers, could see that this will have a protective effect (for children, school, virtual worlds, free speech, network security, etc.). Give me a headsup when you write about social norming so I can help spread the word. Best,


  4. Quick addendum on sexting: I thought it was interesting and important that – in its coverage of the recently released AP/MTV sexting study – the AP led with the statement of a 16-yr-old that he probably wouldn't send a sext message again, know that it could result in felony charges (blogged about it here Education along those lines is so important, I think (and have a feeling you agree, Sameer). Best,


  5. As a guidance counselor, I can definitely say that cyberbullying is rampant in our youth and that it impacts them at school. What is frustrating, however, as school personnel, is that things that happen off campus with texting, or for example, students posting degrading youtube videos to humiliate and make fun of other students, is that the school doesn't have any authority in these situations. The bullying via text translates to the hallways, and when students come to me, there is little I can do for what has occurred off campus. Schools often have contracts such as a "No Contact" contract to keep students committed to staying away from each other on campus, verbally and physically, but these actions can't be effective out of school in the neighborhood or through the world wide web. I realize parents are becoming educated about these issues, however part of the problem stems from a lack of supervision and follow through on the parents' behalf. Students may be texting back and forth and that may later relay to a fight in the hallway, resulting in suspension, which could have potentially been avoided if parents intervened. Of course this will not resolve the issue of bullying as a whole, but if the media is monitored by the responsible parties in the household, I do think there would be less occurrence.

    I agree that if students knew there could be legal consequences, then they might be less likely to participate in sexting…I think this again depends on cultural norms…there are students who are numb to legal consequences if their parents have been in the system and have not been "remediated," so to speak.

    I do strongly agree that peers take cues from others when it comes to self-concept. Sadly, time is not given to professionals such as myself, to talk to students about these issues. The focus tends to be so academic in public school these days, that test scores dictate funds and job security, so the affective part of life is not wholly addressed. If anything, I wish issues like these would highlight and impress upon government that time AND resources DURING THE SCHOOL DAY when we have students on our campus in our care, are necessary if we want to change these trends.

  6. Interesting points on your blog Anne, same things happening in Australia. I cannot see a way around stopping children and teenagers using so much internet and social media. The same arguements occurred when people tried to get them to stop watching so much television then video games. But as you point out it is vital to teach good digital citizenship and netiqutte is more vital than ever.

  7. some kids look at this blog and say most of it is fake, i think it s real cause i no from long ago i was talking to a stranger and then i got his number i meet him over myspace cause i new that was a friends brother and i got his number and i was texting him and everything was cool and i never told my parents and then i got my phone taken and my mom read the messages this boy was sending me and then my mother told me to tell her where he lived so i did and then she went over to his parents house and showed them my phone and i didnt get my phone back for a long time and my mom and dad told this boy and his parents that if this ever happend again then my mom would call the police on him and so he never did it again but come to find out a few weeks latter he never lied about his age but he did lie about how he didnt have any kids … he had 2 kids … but back on the subject why dont kids listen to the news thats going around? cause if they dont what will happen to them when they are in this kind of problem:)

  8. i have been personally cyberbullied i had left my computer logged in accidentally in my classroom and someone left me a terrible message sayin that they would cut my throat noone INCLUDING THE SCHOOL BOARD TOOK IT SEROIUS

  9. In today's fast moving technology, cyber bullying was just a matter of time before it captured our attention. Although bullying as existed since I was a student, this new form of bullying other students seems to have bigger consequences. I believe many students and children don't realize the consequences behind the bullying, however I do believe that children will be children and that cyber-bullying is to many just another form of recreation without any true wrongful intentions. As children they may believe that their identities are much more revealed and it will be more difficult to get in trouble.

    When trying to figure out the root of this problem, it is easy to point fingers. As for me I strongly believe these are issues that are bound to happen with our fast moving technology. With sites such as youtube and facebook we can post whatever we wish to, may it be harmful to others or not. Certain regulations are applied to sites but how direct can these regulations be applied?

  10. With the young kids today, there is a lot of pressure to grow up faster and fit in with other peers. Many young people are simply pressured into doing actions, such as sexting, with recognition that it could harm anyone.I think texting is a massive new wave in media communications that is profitable, but also like everything else, can become corrupt. I think parents should inform children of the dangers of sexting as well as texting.

  11. Messages towards our little girls

    A message repeatedly that caught my eye was, “What matters is how “hot” they look. It can be found on playing on TV and across the Internet. Teen girls hear it everywhere, including in the school they attend five days a week. Songs repeatedly sings the lyrics and seen in movies, electronic games and clothing stores. Parents are very powerful, but can they keep their children away from these all? I don’t think that’s possible, because a kid will always be a kid and a parent will not always be around. Kids tend to hear things from others and sneak and find out things on their own. It’s hard to keep your child away when they are everywhere and easy to get to. But teaching them will only help them in better decision making in the future. Girls I figure are more complicated to raise, because there are certain ways in doing everything. Starting with teaching her to love and value her body and self as a start, because if she can’t do that, then trouble is bound to come. Other parents of young men shall teach them to value girls as friends, sisters, and girlfriends, rather than as sexual objects. It’s all in raising children in my understanding; it is very much needed in today’s world.

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