Teens who perceive their parents to be loving and emotionally supportive are less likely to engage in cyberbullying, according to a new study by researchers at New York University (NYU). The findings are very valuable for parents as well as educational and youth care professionals. Especially given the many changes in family life due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Teens’ Perspective
Most cyberbullying studies focus on the victims. Yet understanding the underlying co-determining factors that may entice children to engage in bullying are just as important. Therefore, researchers at the Rory Meyers College of Nursing Institute at New York University (NYU) decided to analyze data collected by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the US in 2009-2010. They also took the results of more recent studies and surveys into account.
Comparing findings across studies proved to be difficult. This is because researchers use various definitions for cyberbullying. Furthermore, cyberbullying is measured and observed in many different ways. On top of all that, studies vary in terms of, for example, the age, grade, and demographic background of the participants. Or the aspects of parenting and child-carer relationships they focus on. Nonetheless, the research team at NYU was able to draw some conclusions, based on the teens’ perceptions of parental support and their family’s socio-demographics.
“Our findings point to the importance of parental emotional support as a factor that may influence whether teens cyberbully — and, more importantly, how teens perceive the support they receive from their parents”, said Laura Grunin, PhD student and the study’s lead author. “I would like to emphasize to parents that it is not enough for them to think they are supportive, but to check what their adolescent thinks.”
Parent’s Love and Emotional Support
The researchers found that the more children described their parents as loving, the less they engaged in cyberbullying. The most defining question related to whether the parent or guardian was loving. Children who answered “almost always” were over six times less likely to engage in high levels of cyberbullying than teens who said “almost never”. This held true even if the child felt that their carer was “sometimes” loving. Children in this group were twice as likely to engage in high cyberbullying behavior.
Other forms of emotional support, such as “feeling understood” by their parents, or “making them feel better when upset”, did not seem to determine their online behavior. Children who said that their carer “tried to control everything” or almost always “treated them like a baby”, on the other hand, were more likely to engage in bullying behavior.
NYU’s study does not prove that lack of parental support directly triggers cyberbullying, but the results do suggest that the relationship of children with their parents influences their bullying behavior. Thus, this relationship must be taken into account when developing, for example, bullying prevention campaigns, the research suggests.
Differentiators such as gender, race or demographics were not the main focus of the study. Nonetheless, there were some noticeable differences in the likelihood of displaying cyberbullying behavior in relation to these factors. Girls, for example, fell more frequently in the group of children “who do not bully” (class 1) or “bully with a low cyberbullying element” (class 2)”.
Further, Asian participants had the lowest outcome for any cyberbullying across all classes as compared to the reference group made up of White teenagers. African American adolescents, on the other hand, were less likely to engage in lower levels of cyberbullying and more likely to engage in higher levels. Some findings warrant further research and suggest the possible need to address certain groups of youngsters differently.
With respect to the socio-demographic variable, the results suggest that the way some teens view their family’s financial state can be associated with bullying behavior. Nonetheless, the correlation “lacks specific patterns and does not explain causation”, the abstract explains. The study results do not say, for example that all children who, for example, label their families as “not very well off” will become bullies. Likewise, not all teens with loving and emotionally supportive parents will steer away from cyberbullying behavior.
New Family Dynamics
In today’s context, the study is very relevant. Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed family life. “Social media and online peer interactions have often replaced face-to-face interactions. These changes create more opportunities for cyber/bullying behaviors”, explains Laura Grunin. “Additionally, the shift in employment status of parents (e.g., many unemployed, furloughed, working remotely from home, and lacking childcare) has created new types of family and home stressors and parenting styles.”
Understanding the factors associated with young people cyberbullying their peers is important. It can help families, schools, and communities develop ways to prevent cyberbullying or intervene when it occurs. “Therefore, educators, health experts, and professionals working with young people should consider family dynamics as they develop programs to combat cyberbullying”, the researchers conclude.
However, further research is needed. NYU’s research team name many other factors that should be included in future studies, such as the relationship of adolescents with their siblings or aspects of the parents’ relationships with each other. These things might also affect a teen’s perception of “support” in relation to bullying behavior.