Julie Robotham June 30, 2012
Spreading rumours ... smartphones are facilitating cyber-bullying, according to an Australian psychologist. Photo: Bloomberg
THE rise of smartphones has outpaced traditional wisdom on how parents should monitor teenagers' use of technology and created a powerful new venue for cyber-bullying, according to an Australian psychologist who has conducted the most detailed study yet of children's behaviour towards each other.
Sheryl Hemphill, from the Australian Catholic University, followed 700 Victorian school students from year 7 to year 9, asking them anonymously whether they had teased, threatened, spread rumours about or excluded other children either in person or using a computer or phone.
She found 15 per cent of the teenagers had been involved in cyber-bullying, fewer than the 21 per cent who confessed to having bullied others in person.
But there was little overlap between the groups, with only 7 per cent of students engaged both in face-to-face and cyber-bullying, Professor Hemphill found. She said this might be a result of ''anonymity and the perception that this form of bullying was less likely to be detected. Cyber-bullying may also rely on different forms of power'' related to technology skills rather than physical dominance.
It was also possible, she said, that teenagers might act impulsively online because they were remote from the distress caused by their behaviour. ''In cyberspace you don't have the visual cues,'' she said.
Many authorities, including the federal government's Stay Smart Online initiative recommend parents keep computers in the family room so children's internet activity is visible.
But smartphones had raised the stakes, Professor Hemphill said. ''There have been ideas about how much monitoring parents should do … but now with smartphones they really can't be there all the time.'' A survey by Google last month showed more than half of mobile phones in Australia have internet capability.
In contrast to traditional bullying, Professor Hemphill's survey, published this week in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found cyber-bullying was not linked to disrupted family background or poor school performance.
She hopes to conduct further research into characteristics of individual children or situations, including whether group dynamics affect the likelihood of bullying as online devices become more prevalent. ''What are the peer things that are going on if they're all online at the same time?'' she asks. ''We know peers are really important for adolescents and if you get a group together it could be that they may behave in ways they would never think of on their own.''
An interim report last year by the federal joint select committee on cyber-safety recommended the development of a national definition of bullying via technology and of mentoring to promote online safety.
In its response, in December, the federal government proposed defining bullying as, ''repeated verbal, physical, social or psychological behaviour that is harmful and involves the misuse of power by an individual or group towards one or more persons. Cyberbullying refers to bullying through information and communication technologies.''
But the Stride Foundation, which promotes youth wellbeing, suggested in a submission to the inquiry that the threshold should be lower for cyber-bullying. ''Because the intimidation or bullying action is delivered via the written word … the target can read and therefore be affected by the same words again and again'' even if the attack occurred only once, it said.