Perspectives: Bridging the Gap

By: Jenny Mischel, Ph.D. Candidate at George Mason University

Research focused on bullying behavior is prolific and the expansion into cyberbullying continues to grow. However, bullying/cyberbullying behavior continues to be elusive, detrimental, and worrisome. This may, in part, be due to discrepancies in how the constructs are conceptualized and operationalized (Tokunga, 2010). Volk, Veenstra, and Espelage (2017) suggest that researchers should continue to strive for consistency when defining and measuring bullying so that future studies build upon prior research findings. Smith (2019) agrees stating this is compounded further when investigating cyberbullying as platforms continue to evolve.

Another salient component is investigation into adolescent and adult perspectives regarding bullying/cyberbullying behavior. In a recent study utilizing qualitative measures to gauge perspectives (Mischel & Kitsantas, under review), the most prominent finding was adolescent beliefs in the discrepancy of how the behavior is perceived. This finding has been reiterated numerous times when working with groups of adolescents in informal settings. Those interviewed felt their situations, “were not taken seriously,” by adults or their feelings were, “diminished,” and they were “blown off,” by those in authority. All of the parents, of those interviewed, were aware of their child’s distress, yet were not privy to the full scope of what their child was experiencing. When asked about school staff support, adolescents in the study felt most educators were already over-taxed with behavior problems or lacked the tools to help when they were approached. Furthermore, this does not account for adult awareness, or lack thereof, regarding the prevalence of aggressive behavior. According to Slonje and Smith (2008), most adolescents believe that adults are less aware of cyberbullying behavior in comparison to bullying. Yet, research also indicates that relational bullying is usually manipulative and covert, occurring “under the radar” of adult awareness (Woods & Wolke, 2004).

It seems logical that most parents want to protect and help their child, as do educators. The parents in the study conducted by Mischel & Kitsantas (under review), shared their frustration and concern regarding their children’s well-being. Additionally, research indicates that teachers do want to help their students but suggest further training to navigate this sensitive topic would be beneficial (Bradshaw, Waasdorp, O’Brennan, & Gulemetova, 2013). Such training might benefit parents as well.

As bullying and cyberbullying have the potential to inflict long-lasting detrimental outcomes, it is vital that further exploration continues. Smith (2019) encourages focus on qualitative and longitudinal research methods to promote a better understanding of the phenomenon. For example, schools could implement focus groups to obtain a better “pulse” on students’ perspectives, and similarly with school staff. Findings could then be shared with the two groups so they both have a better understanding of the other’s perspective. This would help staff understand how an adolescent might be feeling. Additionally, school staff would also benefit from training on how to deal with such situations (Li, 2010). School staff could also be trained on identifying potentially problematic behaviors or have better awareness of students’ sense of self (Nixon, 2014). Also, development of peer support groups could provide a sense of belonging and refuge for those struggling. Adolescents today face different issues than adults did at their age. Information is at their fingertips and communications styles having changed considerably. Therefore, continued open discussions with adolescents on how they perceive bullying/cyberbullying behavior, is warranted.

Jenny is a Visiting Professor at Washington and Lee University with a research interest in perspective-taking, specifically focused on bullying and cyberbullying behavior.

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