What Is Cyberbullying? Parents Disagree

A teen girl sits at her computer, looking sad
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Cyberbullying is a common concern for parents who have teenage kids, but parents seem to disagree on which behaviors should be labeled as cyberbullying, a new report suggests.

In a poll of a nationally representative sample of about 600 parents of adolescents ages 13 to 17, researchers gave parents four hypothetical scenarios involving teens. The researchers then asked the parents whether they thought each scenario represented cyberbullying.

In one scenario, which involved a student spreading rumors online that another student had sex at school, 65 percent of parents said it was definitely cyberbullying.

But in another scenario — which also involved spreading online rumors, but in this case that a student was caught cheating on a test — only 43 percent of the parents said it was definitely cyberbullying, according to the report released today (Sep. 21) as part of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, based at the University of Michigan..

"That's a really substantial difference," said the author of the report, Sarah J. Clark, associate director of the poll.

There really is no standard definition of cyberbullying, Clark told Live Science.

In another scenario used in the poll, 63 percent of parents said that carrying out a social media campaign to elect a certain student to the school's homecoming court that was intended as a mean joke was definitely cyberbullying.

And 45 percent said that sharing a photo that had been altered to make a classmate look fatter was definitely cyberbullying. [10 Facts Every Parent Should Know About Their Teen's Brain]

"I think there is perhaps an emotional factor" that may explain the differences, Clark said. "Perhaps parents perceive that certain things would be more humiliating than other things."

Between 30 to 50 percent of the parents in the study said they were unsure whether any of the four scenarios represented examples of cyberbullying. However, less than 5 percent said that any of the scenarios definitely did not represent cyberbullying.

Mothers were more likely than fathers to label the scenarios as cyberbullying, the researchers found. However, the researchers did not see differences in the parents' perceptions of the scenarios based on the types of schools their kids were attending (public versus private), or the age of the parents, she said.

The parents in the study also had differing views on penalties for the four potential cyberbullying scenarios, the researchers said. As many as one in five parents said that posting the online rumors that a student had sex at school should be punished by being referred to law enforcement. However, only 5 percent of the parents said they felt that way about the online rumor concerning cheating on a test, Clark said.

"Growing recognition of the dangers of bullying has prompted calls for tougher laws and school sanctions, but our poll shows the huge challenge in establishing clear definitions and punishments for cyberbullying," she said in a statement. "Schools should consider these differing opinions, to avoid criminalizing teen behavior that is hard to define and enforce consistently."

Follow Agata Blaszczak-Boxe on Twitter. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Staff Writer