For many children, text messaging has become the number one way they communicate with their friends. A new study shows that a growing number of these kids are reporting being harassed via text messaging.
Of more than 1,100 middle school and high school students surveyed in 2008, 24 percent said they had ever been harassed by texting. That was up from about 14 percent in a survey of the same kids the year before.
On the other hand, actual bullying was down a little.
In 2008, about eight percent of kids said they'd ever been bullied via text, versus just over six percent the year before.
Though similar, harassment and bullying are not the same. Researchers determined that harassment meant that peers had spread untrue rumors, made rude or mean comments, or threatened a peer. Bullying was defined as being repeatedly picked on.
Parents need to pay attention to their child’s text messaging, researchers say, but they don’t believe parents should be alarmed by the study’s results.
"This is not a reason to become distressed or take kids' cell phones away," said lead researcher Michele L. Ybarra, of Internet Solutions for Kids, Inc., in San Clemente, California.
"The majority of kids seem to be navigating these new technologies pretty healthfully," she told Reuters Health.
The study included 1,588 10- to 15-year-olds who were surveyed online for the first time in 2006. The survey was repeated in 2007 and 2008, with about three-quarters of the original group taking part in all three.
When it came to Internet-based harassment, there was little change over time. By 2008, 39 percent of students said they'd ever been harassed online, with most saying it had happened "a few times." Less than 15 percent said they'd ever been cyber-bullied.
And even when kids were picked on, most seemed to take it in stride.
Of those who said they'd been harassed online in 2008, 20 percent reported being "very or extremely upset" by the most serious incident. That was down a bit from 25 percent in 2006. (The study did not ask about distress over text-message harassment.)
"I don't think it makes sense for parents to get anxious about every new technology, or every new study," said David Finkelhor, who directs the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
"A lot of the old parenting messages still hold true, like teaching your kids the 'golden rule,'" Finkelhor said. "These are discussions that aren't specific to the Internet or cell phones."
And despite concerns that technology has made teasing and taunting easier, Finkelhor said there's evidence that overall, kids are doing less of it these days. "Bullying and victimization are down over the period that Internet use has gone up. It's improving," he said.
Finkelhor credited greater awareness of the problem, among schools and parents, for that decline.
One way that the anti-bullying and harassment message is getting out is through a school program called Rachel’s Challenge. Rachel Scott was the first person killed at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. The program was inspired by Rachel’s acts of kindness and compassion.
According to the Rachel’s Challenge website, the programs exists to stand alongside education professionals at every level to inspire, equip and empower students from K-12 to make a positive difference in their world.
Rachel’s Challenge list their objectives for schools as:
- Create a safe learning environment for all students by re-establishing civility and delivering proactive antidotes to school violence and bullying.
- Improve academic achievement by engaging students' hearts, heads and hands in the learning process.
- Provide students with social/emotional education that is both colorblind and culturally relevant.
- Train adults to inspire, equip and empower students to affect permanent positive change.
Rachel’s Challenge is just one program that schools are looking at to help students understand and stop harassment and bullying. Researchers say that parents still play the most important role in helping children navigate through life’s sometimes hard and cruel maze. One suggestion is for parents to become more familiar with current technology. Other ideas from online support groups are:
- Encourage your kids to get together with friends that help build their confidence.
- Help them meet other kids by joining clubs or sports programs.
- Find activities that can help a child feel confident and strong. Maybe it's a self-defense class like karate or a movement or other gym class.
The study’s findings were reported in the journal Pediatrics.