Cyberbullying: A Call For Criminalization

Earlier this week, the article below was posted on the BBC News Wales website:


You can click above to read the piece in full. In it, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Keith Towler, states a case for why laws are now needed to tackle the problem of cyberbullying, while the Welsh government, whilst acknowledging the problem of cyberbullying in Wales, argues that positive and respectful relationships should be developed, rather than criminalizing cyberbullying.

I’ve just re-read the article for the nth time, and can’t see that Keith Towler was referring to criminalizing cyberbullying among children in his argument, although this seems to be implicit in the Welsh government’s response (they argue that the guidance given to schools is sufficient).  Assuming then, that Keith Towler is arguing for laws that would affect teenagers as perpetrators of cyberbullying, what is the evidence that this would work? Neither side in this article cites research evidence to support their claims, either that cyberbullying should be criminalized, or that it should not be, so I thought I would review some.

The first attempt to intervene against bullying was made in Norway by Olweus (1983). He reported that bullying fell by 50%. Next up, the Sheffield Anti-Bullying Project (1991-1994) involved 16 primary and 7 secondary schools. There was a 17% reduction in levels of bullying for primary schools, and modest reductions of 3-5% in 5 of the 7 secondary schools. There was importantly an increased willingness to report bullying. The overall finding was that schools that did the most achieved the most. The KiVA program in Finland is a new intervention with encouraging findings so far (reductions of around 35-40%). In a recent overview of the research Ttofi & Farrington ( 2009) showed interventions are effective in reducing levels of bullying and victimisation, by 20-23% in experimental schools compared with controls.Those based on the Olweus programme, and that targeted children over 11 years-old, were most effective.

So interventions are effective. But what were the details of these interventions? There are two camps of intervention option: one is proactive approaches (having things in place that promote positive relationships) and the other is reactive approaches (having things in place to deal with bullying when it has occurred). Note that each side of the debate in the news article falls into a different camp.

First then, reactive interventions. The ‘No-Blame Approach involves the bullying children being seen individually and encouraged to recognize the suffering of the bullied and a positive way forward is suggested. The bullied child or young person is also seen; if a provocative victim encouraged to modify his/ her behaviour. There is work towards a group meeting of bullies and bullied and an agreed way of coping, with some follow-up. This has been found to be effective in two thirds of cases (Sharp & Smith 1994). However, it is opposed by some experts (Olweus 1999). In severe cases, or where individuals do not respond, further action may be needed (McGrath & Noble, 2006).

Bully courts are another example of reactive intervention, and bear a potential resemblance to criminallization.  Here, an elected court of pupils meets after an alleged incident has occurred; all concerned are interviewed, including witnesses, and a decision is made about what punishment (if any) is appropriate. A school staff member chairs the court. It was claimed that in eight schools, reports of being bullied dropped from 70% to 6% (Elliott, 1991), but this was not publicly documented (Smith  & Sharp 1994). One case study of a secondary school found evidence for effectiveness in lower years when combined with a peer mentoring support scheme (Mahdavi & Smith 2002).

If cyberbullying were criminalized, there might well be sanctions for those involved. Sanctions have been found to have direct negative outcomes (Frankham et al., 2007). They lead to a temporary cessation of bullying only, and do not repair damage or help future relationships (Thompson & Smith, 2011). The case for criminalizing bullying then doesn’t seem so strong.

So, what about proactive interventions? Are they any better? Curriculum work, involving stories, theatre and role-play (Boulton & Flemmington, 1996) as well as cooperative group work, (Cowie & Sharp, 1994) and the Social – Emotional – Affective – Learning Programme ‘Say No to Bullying’which aims to develop social and emotional skills (Hallam et al., 2006) have good evidence for effectiveness in promoting positive relationships  (Smith et al., 2008). Of course, the issue in a lot of these evaluations is that we don’t know how much bullying we were preventing from happening (I have a dream-catcher on my window that prevents tigers from dropping by for tea: it is 100% effective….). 

Another option is peer mentoring. Peer supporters gain personal benefit from their involvement (e.g. new skills, increase in self-confidence), and peer support is perceived as beneficial by users. However, its effectiveness is limited to times when agreed ways of working are clear and there is good staff supervision and support of the mentors  Additionally, peer supporters report some degree of derision or hostility from some pupils, (e.g., Houlston  & Smith, 2009) and  it is  difficult to  recruit boys as peer supporters, and again, there is little pre-post data on whether peer support leads to a reduction in levels of bullying.

In sum, the research evidence suggests that large scale campaigns can reduce levels of bullying and victimization, and that schools that do the most achieve the most. There is limited evidence of success for punitive reactive interventions, and some evidence of success for proactive interventions (in spite of their caveats). However, since several interventions are often used by schools at one time, and because evaluations of these interventions are sparse, and not highly controlled, we still don’t know which specific interventions are most effective in which situations. Neither do many interventions specifically address the role of the peer group, or the dynamics of friendship groups, in spite of consensus that positive working relationships and good social skills are crucial.

Smith et al. (2004) highlighted a need to take a systemic perspective, involving teachers, parents and the community. They suggest a need for a range of interventions, concerning (a) what to do with children who bully, (b) what to do with children who are victimized, (c) what to do in classrooms, (d) what to do with bystanders, (e) what to do at a school level. and (f) what to do at a broader community level. Given that those who cyberbully might not be part of the school, and given the limited success of a lot of reactive interventions, I agree with them. Criminalization, if it is used as an answer to cyberbullying, is only ever going to be a very small part of it, that isn’t likely to be effective for most children.


3 thoughts on “Cyberbullying: A Call For Criminalization

  1. Pingback: One in the Eye For Bullying? | Through the Academic Looking Glass

  2. Pingback: Picking Teams on the Playground: A review of Hitti et al. (2013) | Through the Academic Looking Glass

  3. Pingback: Bullying Research: At Odds with the Commentary | Through the Academic Looking Glass

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