Peer Influences and Social Norming


We are working on a new paper that examines the influence of peers on cyberbullying behavior. We have long known that there is a strong correlation between a youth’s behaviors and those of his or her friends (see Mark Warr’s work, especially “Companions in Crime”). It should come as no surprise, then, that we are seeing similar results in our analysis. Students who reported to us that many of their friends had bullied others (at school, using a computer, and using a cell phone) were significantly more likely to have also reported to us that they too had bullied and cyberbullied others. Specifically, only 4% of the respondents who said none of their friends had cyberbullied others in the previous 6 months reported that they had cyberbullied others in the last 30 days. In contrast, 62% of the students who said “all” or “most” of their friends had cyberbullied others in the previous 6 months reported that they cyberbullied others.

There are many theoretical reasons to help us understand this relationship. For example, it could be that cyberbullying, like just about anything else, is learned behavior. Teens see their friends cyberbully others and not only learn the specific techniques or tactics, but also learn to justify the behaviors (it is just a joke, the target had it coming, it is no big deal, they won’t get caught, etc.). The behaviors could be reinforced further if their peers encourage them through social acceptance or if they are otherwise rewarded (or at least not punished) for what they did. A teen might cyberbully another simply to avoid the possibility that negative attention will be directed back at them if they do not go along with the crowd. It could also be a sort of “birds of a feather flock together” syndrome whereby teens who are cyberbullying others seek each other out to reaffirm the normality of their behaviors. No matter what the precise reason is, it makes sense that kids who participate in cyberbullying might tend to hang out with others who also engage in cyberbullying.

Of course there are some limitations to using a teen’s report of their peer’s behaviors as a measure of the peer’s actual behaviors. Teens could simply be reflecting their own behaviors on others or may think that their friends are behaving in certain ways, when they really aren’t. I see this phenomenon often when speaking with students. I ask them to tell me what percent of students cyberbully others. Their estimates are all uniformly very high (70-80-90%). They are surprised when I tell them that the correct number is actually much lower than that – less than 10% have done it in the previous 30 days. I was at a school this spring that had just collected data from its students about cyberbullying. I quickly skimmed through the handout that the principal gave me with a summary of the results and noticed that 9.5% of the students admitted that they had cyberbullied others. Yet when I asked the students during my presentation, they too estimated the number to be in the 80-90% range.

Correcting the perceptions of youth about these facts is important because if they come to see a certain behavior as normative, they may feel free to engage in that behavior. Or they may feel pressure to “fit in” by doing what they think “everyone” else is doing. Well, the truth is that most students are not cyberbullying others. I tell teens that it is in their best interest to work to reduce the 10% number even more because, like them, the adults in their lives often see the behaviors of the 10% and assume that most young people must be behaving similarly. I mean, there is no shortage of examples in the morning paper or on the nightly news of teens getting into trouble for misusing technology. But these examples represent the exceptions rather than what is most often occurring.

In the end, perceptions can be just as important as reality in terms of influencing behaviors. Which is why we need to work to educate teens and adults alike about what most youth are doing online, using valid and reliable data. (We discuss social norming theory and how it applies to cyberbullying and sexting in our new book). And the data show that teens generally do behave in concert with what they believe their friends are doing. This is even more evidence in support of working to create a climate at school where no form of bullying is tolerated. If students don’t see bullying and cyberbullying happening, or if they see it but the behaviors are immediately condemned by people they care about (their peers and adults), then hopefully they will learn that the norm in their school is to treat each other with respect.


  1. I am pleasantly surprised when I read that only 10% of students are actually cyberbullies. The statement about changing students perceptions about the number of people who engage in this behavior makes complete sense. If students find that this is not normal they WILL be less likely to participate in the act of cyberbullying.

  2. It does not surprise me that kids think cyberbullying is normal. I was surprised that kids thought it was 70-90% bullying though. Many students today think that you need to “toughen up” when you’re getting bullied, either the traditional way or by cyberbullying. This is the mentality that needs to be stopped. I think this site is doing a great job of attempting to bring awareness and to stop the bullying from happening.

  3. It was interesting and informative to read that students in this survey who reported that their friends had bullied others were significantly more likely to reported that they had bullied or cyberbullied others, as well. I also found it interesting that this may very well be a learned behavior and is justified in the minds of the cyberbullies by rationalizing that it’s just a joke, or the target had it coming, or they won’t get caught. It’s obvious to me from studying this subject that most cyberbullies are not aware , or at least not concerned with, the lack of anonymity that exists.
    I agree that it is important to educate the youths about the facts of cyberbullying. If they see this behavior as normal they may feel free to engage in the behavior. I also agree that perception is often as important as reality in influencing these unacceptable behaviors. And this is exactly why education in this area is vital if we ever expect to make an impact on its prevalence. If adults fail to convincingly convey the unacceptability of this behavior it will flourish. It is vital that the education we provide in this area be accurate, presented non-emotionally and be convincing. Adolescents will “see right through us” if they know that we are coloring the information we provide by the use of unsubstantiated statements. At the end of the day we must make it known, without question, that cyberbullying will not be tolerated, and that severe punishments will be provided without reprieve.
    My experience as a law enforcement officer unequivocally convinced me that warnings do not change unacceptable behaviors.
    While we can’t be sure about the accuracy of self-reporting vs. reporting in large group discussion regarding the percentage of cyberbullies in the student population it is apparent that there is a discrepancy in the numbers vs. perception. Perhaps students are untruthful in one or both of the reporting venues.
    “If students don’t see bullying and cyberbullying happening, or if they see it but the behaviors are immediately condemned by people they care about (their peers and adults), then hopefully they will learn that the norm in their school is to treat each other with respect.” Your closing sentence was the most important take-away for me.

  4. I’ve delt with bulling my whole life, well in middle school I delt with it my self just like i do online, I followed steps they said to take way before they even had the advertisements about it, the Kids didn’t listen, Teachers didn’t my partents got envolved nothing happened then they started throwing big rocks at me, I called the cops, they did nothing so I started beating the crap out of ’em and I end up introuble by the school for defending my self against bullies, I think WTF about that. but online is way different I shut people up online all the time becuase of my actually experience. Sucks to have a bully, but when nothing else happens you gotta beat their idiotic heads. Show’em whos wrong

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