State legislatures across the country have passed or proposed laws against what they call cyberbullying. But how do young people parse bullying from being mean online? And when it happens, what do they do about it?
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and released Wednesday teases out these complex, often painful threads of teen life on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Two-thirds of the teenagers surveyed said people were â€œmostly kind to each other on these networks, even as 88 percent said they had witnessed â€œpeople being mean or cruel. One in five admitted to having joined in on the cruelty.
Notably, one in five teens surveyed said they had been â€œbullied, but of those, the largest share said they had been bullied in person, not online. Indeed, online and offline sentiments often merge: one in four said an online squabble resulted in a face-to-face argument or worse.
What do they do when they see or feel the brunt of cruelty online?
The vast majority say they ignore it. Girls are more likely to seek advice than boys. And when they do seek advice, teenagers are more likely to turn to their peers than their parents. Parents are not entirely useless. The survey found that 86 percent of teens said parents advised them on â€œhow to use the Internet responsibly and safely.
Those surveyed expressed a certain savvy in manipulating their online profiles: Close to half lied about their age in order to access a site off limits to children under 13. Most said they tweaked their privacy settings so their posts were not widely visible.
The survey also revealed some of the new anxieties that parents experience. Three out of four parents said they â€œchecked which Web sites their child visited. Pew researchers said that could have been as simple as checking the browsing history on their computers. And among parents who have a Facebook account, 80 percent were on their childrens list of friends.
The survey was conducted by phone earlier this year on 799 children, aged 12 to 17, and their parents or guardians. The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points. Nearly all kids in that age group are online, and among them, four out of five use a social network like Facebook, MySpace or Twitter. The report aptly calls them â€œspaces where much of the social activity of teen life is echoed and amplifiedâ€"in both good and bad ways.