Gen Z & Adolescence in the Age of Cyberbullying

This October marked the tenth annual National Bullying Prevention Month.  While bullying isn’t a new problem, it has received more attention in recent years, especially since the advent of social media has added a new and sometimes sinister dimension.  Gen Z is the first generation facing an adolescence where bullies are not just in the schoolyard but can follow their victims 24/7 via social media.

The Columbine shooting in April 1999 put the conversation of school bullying into the spotlight since initial reports presented bullying as an impetus behind the tragedy.  While subsequent reports have refuted this claim a nationwide conversation developed.  Following Columbine and a suicide linked to bullying, Georgia led the way in 1999 and became the first state to “pass bullying legislation, which required schools to implement character education programs that explicitly addressed bullying prevention”.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, “Cyberbullying is when someone repeatedly threatens, harasses, mistreats, or makes fun of another person (on purpose) online or while using cell phones or other electronic devices.” Based on this definition, 34% of students [have] experienced cyberbullying in their lifetime (17% within the last 30 days). Mean comments and rumors are the most common manifestations of cyberbullying according to those impacted, and while cyberbullying can occur anywhere and at anytime, victims report that it “really affect(s) their ability to learn and feel safe at school”.

In a recent conversation, Julie Hertzog, Director at PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, explained to me that the subject of bullying has required a “paradigm shift.  There has been acceptance of the issue for generations and it takes a long time to elevate consciousness.” It’s an important change in perception though, and based on my research into the topic I believe there are three main reasons bullying is something we need to pay attention to.

1. Individual Impact: Bullying is painful and can have a lifelong impact.   The news is full of extreme and tragic stories where bullying ended in suicide.  While fortunately, this is not the outcome for the majority, bullying can lead to problems such as depression, low self-esteem and lower performance at school.  Recent research shows that the impact of bullying doesn’t stop in childhood.  A journal article published in Psychological Science titled the “Impact of Bullying in Childhood on Adult Health, Wealth, Crime, and Social Outcomes” (Dieter Wolke et al. 2013) conducted a longitudinal study following over 1,000 children into adulthood and found that both bullies and their victims “are at increased risk for adverse health, financial, and social outcomes in adulthood”.

2. Societal Impact: Many societal values are learned in childhood and continue into adulthood.  If we want to be a society that values inclusion and tolerance then we need to enforce behaviors that align with those values early on.  Studies have shown that children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers.  Additionally, 9 out of 10 LGBT youth report having been bullied in the past year.  Bullying affects not only the victims but the perpetrators as well.  The Highmark Foundation reports that “children who report using bullying behaviors against others are over three times as likely to have multiple criminal convictions by their early twenties”.

3. Cost Impact: A study by the Highmark Foundation in conjunction with the Center for Safe Schools examined the expected impact of broadly expanding the Owleus Bullying Prevention Program in Pennsylvania from three cost/benefit angles:  1) health-related costs associated with bullying 2) school related costs associated with leaving early and 3) lifetime impact from issues such as employment, justice system and social service interaction.  According to their model, “if high school bullying is prevented, cost benefits to society total $1,412,995 per individual [bullying victim or perpetrator] over a lifetime”.

Bullying is an issue that needs a multi-pronged approach to solve.  Parents, schools and teachers, online platform providers (in the case of cyber-bullying) and policy makers all need to be part of the solution.

Parents play a key role given that lessons on personal safety and values start at home.  It’s important to create an environment where kids feel safe coming to a parent if they experience a problem.  They also need to understand that for Gen Z online access is a critical part of their day to day social experience.   One of the reasons kids don’t report troubling instances of cyber contact to their parents is fear that their internet and device access will be taken away.  Parents need to recognize that the online world is an extension of the real world for Gen Z.

Schools and teachers need to create a safe, positive environment that discourages bullying and take an active approach whenever they see inappropriate behavior.  They also need to be aware of the most current research on the topic and implement best practices wherever possible.  While reports on the effectiveness of formal anti-bullying programs are mixed, new data from a group of researchers from Princeton, Rutgers and Yale University showed that bullying was reduced by 30% when initiatives were led by the most social students.  When not-bullying becomes cool the problem is significantly reduced.

Policies have also been put in place and – as of last year when Montana finally signed their anti-bullying bill into law – all 50 states have taken a formal stance on bullying.  Social media platform providers are also doing their part to lead the way in terms of cyberbullying prevention.   Hertzog explained that “Instagram and Facebook are leaders in educating on social etiquette and have ways to report inappropriate posts and encourage social advocacy”.  However, the anonymity of cyberspace makes for rocky terrain at times.  For example, seemingly anonymous sites – like the soon to close (where users can post 6-second video links) and (which enables users to anonymously ask questions) – have also been cited in cyberbullying as videos are posted without permission and questions become attacks on individuals.

The bottom line is that Gen Z, our first generation of “digital natives”, faces a different schoolyard experience than the generations that preceded them.  Much of this is positive as technology has enabled Gen Z to grow up as an aware and contributing generation of global citizens that can share their ideas in radically unprecedented ways.  The dark side is cyberbullying and it is up to them (and us) to reap the benefits of being connected citizens while learning to treat others with respect.