TORONTO - About one in four Canadian kids surveyed about cyberbullying admitted they have been "mean or cruel" to someone online, while more than one in three say they've been a victim, according to a newly released study.
But experts say cyberbullying is probably not as rampant or serious as some parents would believe.
Matthew Johnson is director of education for the non-profit organization MediaSmarts, which worked last year with schools in each province and territory to poll 5,436 students in grades 4 through 11 about online issues.
"There's frequently a perception in the media and certainly held by schools and governments that there's an epidemic of cyberbullying and a perception that some of the most extreme cases with the most tragic results are the norm," says Johnson.
"What we see in fact is that it is much less common and much smaller numbers of students experience significant harm."
Most commonly, students said the bullying act they committed was name calling (78 per cent), while very few students owned up to more serious bad behaviour. Just 12 per cent said they made fun of someone's race or religion, seven per cent said they teased a peer about their sexual orientation, and four per cent said they sexually harassed someone.
Johnson says many kids don't associate their unkind behaviour with so-called cyberbullying and instead think it's just normal and a part of the "drama of teen life."
"What might be happening in a lot of cases is that it seems like just joking around to the person who's doing it and it doesn't necessarily seem that way to the person who's experiencing it," he says.
"And rather than having a situation where there's an identifiable bully and an identifiable victim, fairly often we have much more complicated relationships where people may play the roles of bully, victim and witness at different times.
"We see that a lot of the bullying that's happening is reciprocal and these bullying situations are much more complex than our understanding of bullying would suggest."
Johnson also says that most students who reported being bullied online claimed it wasn't a major issue for them.
Of the 37 per cent who said they have been cyberbullying victims, 70 per cent said it was never or rarely a problem. Meanwhile, 21 per cent said the bullying behaviour was sometimes a problem, and nine per cent said it was often an issue.
"I don't want to give the sense that cyberbullying is not an issue, because there clearly is a certain number of kids for whom it is a significant issue and for a number of kids it's a very significant issue," Johnson says.
"But what this tells us is we have to be much more nuanced in how we respond to cyberbullying."
Read the report: "Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Cyberbullying: Dealing with Online Meanness, Cruelty and Threats"