Social Norms and Cyberbullying Among Students


As I mentioned in my cyberbullying and sexting comments at the National Crime Prevention Council Circle of Respect event two weeks ago, “social norming” continues to bear relevance for dealing with cyberbullying at schools, and I’d like to flesh it out some more since I am a big fan of the concept.  Basically, youth tend to do what others are doing – largely in order to fit in, as they try to figure out who they are and what they stand for.  As they survey the landscape of trends in behaviors and attitudes, they pick up on what is seemingly accepted, endorsed, and done among their peer group.  This influences them consciously or subconsciously, and they then naturally tend to jump “on board” and act similarly in thought, speech, or action.  For example, if an adolescent high school freshmen is told he can’t hang out with friends after Friday night football games because that’s when “everyone” parties and gets drunk, he might begin to view that behavior as commonplace and therefore acceptable.  He may therefore be more inclined to do the same, since it seems “normal” and “known” behavior.

How does this related to reducing online harassment among elementary, middle, and high school students?  Social norming has to do with modifying the environment, or culture within a school, so that appropriate behaviors are not only encouraged, but perceived widely to be the norm.  That is, schools must work to create a climate in which responsible use of Facebook and instant messaging programs (for example), is “what we do around here” and “just how it is at our school and among our students.”  This can occur by focusing attention on the majority of youth who do utilize computers and cell phones in acceptable ways.  If I told you that one in five teenagers are cyberbullied, you wouldn’t focus on spreading that fact around your student body.  Rather, you would reframe and reconceptualize that research finding, and then create cool and relevant messaging strategies emphasizing that the vast majority of your students are using Internet technologies with integrity, discretion, and wisdom, which would hopefully motivate or induce the remainder to get “on board.”  Ideally, the remainder would desire to fit in, would desire to be like everyone else, and would feel an informal compulsion to stop cyberbullying others and start doing the right thing.  Based on this, you can also see how social norming can be used to address sexting.  You can also see how the shaping of social norms is directly related to modifying the overall school climate or culture.

Spending too much time painting cyberbullying in alarmist colors may encourage more youth to act in similar ways, since those youth will perceive the act as “normal” and that “everyone is doing it.”  Are you doing social norming at your school?  In what ways has it worked?  In what ways has it not been as successful as you would have liked? The Cyberbullying Research Center is actively studying its utility, and will keep you updated on what we find.


  1. Sameer.

    Great take! Sorry if I get lengthy on this response, but I am excited to see the discussion and research on Social Norms surface. This is huge in establishing a positive culture and impacting the behavior of youth in school and online. The theory we can dive into when we talk about "social norming" is Social Identity Theory. "In group and out group" and the relation to choices and behavior. Social Identity theory takes it from “I” to “WE”. It is very powerful in youth development and a concept we need to use as a prevention tool.

    How do we address Social Norm? Young people need to take a place at the table as a group, analyze the behavior of their community and decide collectively as a group what they want as the social norm of the community. A great way to do this is to gather qualitative and quantitative data from a random student population in a social forum of discussion activities, surveying and action planning. Two great things happen when we bring young people together during these student led forums:

    1. They experience a pro social bonding moment, which builds understanding, connections, and relationships between the students on a campus.

    2. Students see raw data of the behavior of the students in the forum with them. It makes the data personal when students who reported the behavior are all together in the same place to discuss the outcomes. For example, in a recent forum of 50 students, students took an anonymous survey as one of the activities of the forum. The student leaders report out the data to the participants during the forum for their thoughts and discussion. One of the responses they found at this forum of 50 students, was that 12 students reported being bullied on campus in the last 30 days and 8 of the students feared coming to school in the last 30 days. The students collectively talked about bullying; how it happens, what it feels like, they heard from a few that were willing to share what it is like to be the target of bullying and as a group of 50 decided that they did not want to see that happen on their campus. They did not want that behavior to be “norm” and they were going to let people know. It is that “Golden Rule” you referred to last year, Kids taking care of Kids…..

    Here is a good article on a forum:

    What makes this forum approach even more powerful is the indoctrination of the students who participate into a single group identity called "PLUS" at the end of the forum. By creating the Group Identity "PLUS" we have now established a "WE" in the lens of Social Identity Theory in the student community on a campus. Now the actions of the "WE" (PLUS) will influence the Social Norms of a Campus.

    Thanks for letting me share…keep up the great work and please keep me updated on your research in this area.


  2. I very much appreciate this atttitude and have to say that our research on a big sample of Polish adolescents (N-2143) has backed up those observations. There is a clear link between norms participants presenst and their actual perpetration of cyberbullying and the other forms of electronic aggresssion. We have translated this findings into educational workshops for students and in a few months we are going to test rthis in practice. Of course we will jkeeep you updated on this.

  3. I can tell you from experience(I have 4 kids)this is exactly what families should also do with children at home because it works. When children are around a home environment where "we don't make fun of people", "we don't bully people" and "do the right thing" is all they see and hear, they start to mirror that quickly just as they will mirror bad behavior if that is what they are exposed to. If you partner an encouraging home attitude with an encouraging school attitude , a lot of these mean behaviors might be extinguished or at least diminished. Letting kids know how they should act instead of focusing on what they are doing wrong brings about change because kids like being told that adults are happy with them. This fosters higher self- esteem which will also help extinguish the emotional need to bully or make fun of someone else or "sext" in an effort to gain approval.Keep up the good work.Change takes time, but it happens.

  4. Hi everyone,

    I'm a doctoral student and a NYC middle school administrator. The impact of cyberbullying and sexting are real and a part of my job I never knew I would have to deal with on a weekly basis. There is an emerging field of research on this topic and I'm left wondering what else I can do to add to the field (through a research study such as a dissertation). Any ideas or pointers would be greatly appreciated.



  5. From what I have learned from my younger sister, a high school sophomore it is not at all uncommon for teens in her school to send each other provocative pictures of themselves scantily clad or in compromising positions. These individuals seem to forget that the relationships they forge as adolescents will rarely last and most likely not end well. Too often, these pictures can end up being forwarded to the masses or even doctored. Cell phones and email have these capabilities at the simple touch of a button.

  6. Legality issues in schools with cyberbullying
    I found this article particularly interesting. In this article it briefly touches on the school’s role in preventing these issues. It discusses their role and their delivered discussions with their Ohio students. Social workers are surveyed and it is determined that many don’t feel “equipped” to handle teenage cyberbullying. With the help of local law enforcement, the school officials were assisted in coming up with certain procedures when it came to preventing cyberbullying. “The law hasn’t caught up with technology, Birney noted, and in that respect county Prosecutor Ryan Styer and his staff have helped to clarify issues, explaining such things as when school personnel can look at a text message and when they cannot”.

    There needs to be a type of prevention plan for cyberbullying in school especially with the amount of students that are equipped with cell phones. The research states cyberbullying begins in middle school and that persists throughout high school. These are detrimental habits that need to be stopped before they start. In our reading this week, it states that, “School districts have authority to discipline students who misuse school owned property, resources or materials to cause harm to individuals, as long as their policies clearly prescribe such behavior” (Hinduja 110). I think schools should enforce what is written in their policies. Students are already not allowed to be on their cell phones during school hours or have them out in the classroom. Middle school aged students should be given discussions on cyberbullying.“The Ohio Legislature has mandated school anti-bullying policies to include cyberbullying, which may improve the situation. Slovak hopes to conduct a follow-up study to track progress of the issue, given the fast-changing nature of technology trends.”

  7. hi everyone,
    my name is Orsola and I am an Italian graduate student in psychology at the Second University of Naples. I am preparing a thesis for my degree on Cyberbullying. I would need some study or report on attitudes and beliefs of the cyberbully, in the perspective of social psychology. my guess is also related to attitudes and beliefs of cyberbullying. I thank all those who will give me the directions.

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