Cyberbullying: An Interview with Nancy Willard

Claude AlmansiBy Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues
ETCJ Associate Administrator

Introduction: Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D., is the director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. She is the author of two books, Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Cruelty, Threats, and Distress (Research Press) and Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens, Helping Young People Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly (Jossey Bass). A new book, Cyber Savvy: Embracing Digital Safety and Citizenship, will be published later 2011 by Corwin Press.

Nancy Willard

ETCJ: What is cyberbullying? How is it different from traditional bullying?

Nancy Willard: Cyberbullying is a term that has been applied to situations where young people use digital technologies to engage in hurtful behavior directed at each other. The term “traditional bullying” generally refers to repeated hurtful behavior where there is an imbalance of power. Unfortunately, at this point in time, both terms, “bullying” and “cyberbullying,” are being applied to a wide range of hurtful behavior — arguments, conflict, drama, and the more significant ongoing or imbalance of power situations.

The term that many of us in the field are beginning to use more is “digital aggression.” This allows us to address the wider range of negative behavior and still recognize that sometimes these are incidents where the imbalance or power and continuing nature of the concerns are creating a situation where the target is more vulnerable and likely will require some assistance from adults.

In many situations, digital aggression is closely tied to in-person hurtful behavior. Youth these days really do not consider their lives in neat and tidy boxes of cyber and real world. To them it is just life. There is some evidence, just emerging, that in-person bullying remains a greater concern than cyberbullying.

In a recent study from the EU, when young people were asked if someone had acted in a hurtful or nasty way to them in the past 12 months, 19% said yes; 13% indicated this had occurred in person; 6% said this occurred on the Internet; and 3% said it had occurred by cell phone. These results do not, in my opinion, equate to an epidemic, but a concern we do need to address.

Interestingly, 12% admitted that they had engaged in cyberbullying. Of significant importance among those who had bullied others online, 41% had themselves been bullied online. So what appears to be happening is, in many cases, a two-way phenomenon. And what this means is that we need to focus risk prevention efforts on knowing how to stop online fights before they get worse.

Very significantly, the researchers asked those who had reported being bullied about the severity of the most recent incident. Based on how upset they were, 31% said they were very upset, 24% said they were fairly upset, 30% said they were a bit upset, and 15% said they were not upset. Furthermore, 62% got over it straight away, 31% were upset for a few days, 6% said they were upset a few weeks later, and only 2% said they were upset for a couple of months or longer.

This is very recent EU data in a very well designed study. And the results appear to be in accord with some of the data in the US. The EU appears to be ahead of the US in seeking to positively address these situations. The US is still frequently in “technopanic” mode. Technopanic perceptions of risk that are not grounded in actual research is one of the major barriers to getting more widespread use of Web 2.0 technologies in schools.

ETCJ: Can you give us examples of cyberbullying in school settings?

Nancy Willard: The two most common forms of digital aggression are when a young person sends hurtful messages or texts directly to another person and when a young person posts hurtful material about someone else for others to read. Other forms include distributing material that is sensitive or embarrassing that originally came from the target and was sent under the expectation of privacy, or tricking someone into disclosing something sensitive or embarrassing and then distributing it. This frequently is a crossover of sexting and cyberbullying. Another form is specifically and intentionally excluding someone from a group. For example, a group of girls might all decide to unfriend a particular girl.

ETCJ: What are educators doing about it and why aren’t they succeeding?

Nancy Willard: I would not assert that educators are not succeeding. There are many challenges associated with addressing cyberbullying. One is that these hurtful interactions are taking place when young people are using digital technologies — which are not as easily supervised by adults. And unfortunately many adults, including principals, are less comfortable in dealing with situations that involve young people and digital technologies.

The other problem is that these incidents often occur when students are off-campus, thus raising concerns about the extent of the principal’s authority to intervene. This is an issue that I have provided leadership in addressing. In fact, a law review article I have written addressing the legal dimensions will soon be published by the BYU Education and Law Journal. The challenge in this area is that all but one case that involves a school response to off-campus student speech have involved situations where students targeted staff. And the decision in the one case involving a student attacking another student was decided in a questionable manner.

There is very valid case law that can be interpreted to provide the foundation to assert that school officials can formally intervene in incidents where the off-campus speech of students has, or reasonably could, cause a substantial disruption at school — violent altercations between students, significant interference with the delivery of instruction, or significant interference with the ability of other students to receive an education.

Let me state this otherwise. If, regardless of the geographic origin of student speech, there has been or there are good reasons to believe this could result in violence at school, significant interference with the delivery of instruction for many students, or significant interference in the ability of other students to feel safe at school and receive an education, would anyone argue that principals should not have the authority to respond?

There has been confusion about this, but now states are beginning to use this “substantial disruption” language in their statutes (New Hampshire’s new bullying statute is an example) and districts are adding this language to their statutes and policies. This language is important because it provides better notice to students and their parents.

The other challenge, however, relates to both bullying and cyberbullying — that is, how principals tend to respond is frequently not effective. The Youth Voice Project, in its survey of students, found that only 42% of students even report moderate to very severe bullying to school officials. But in only 34% of those reported situations did they say that, after their report, things got better. In 29% of the cases, things got worse after their report and the other times, things stayed the same. So what grade would we give students if they got things right only 34% of the time?

A major issue is improving the effectiveness of the the response of principals to these cases. It is the opinion of many of us in the field that shifting to more of a restorative justice approach is really important. Also, it is very important to recognize that students who are engaging in bullying have many difficulties of their own. So simply punishing them is not really going to do all that much in stopping their hurtful behavior, especially if they are responding to hurtful behavior they have suffered. We have to address the reasons that they are causing harm to others — reasons which are generally grounded in the fact that, many times in the past, others have done harmful things to them.

ETCJ: What, in your opinion, is the best solution to this problem?

Nancy Willard: The solution I am now recommending is grounded in some very effective risk prevention initiatives that started first at the university level to prevent binge drinking. Researchers surveyed students to find out how many were actually engaging in binge drinking — and what their perceptions were of the number of students who were. They found that many university students believed that a significant portion of their peers were binge drinking. When they were informed about how few students actually did it, the rate of binge drinking went down even further. The knowledge that so many of their peers disapproved of such behavior encouraged more students to refuse to binge drink.

This same approach has been used to address bullying, e.g., see the work of Craig and Perkins. Note that when you inform students about how many of their peers actually disapprove of bullying, the rate of bullying goes down.

The basic format I am now recommending is that you survey students at the school location about their standards and why they adhere to these standards. Schools will find that the vast majority of students are making positive choices. Then you tell students what the majority of their peers are saying — and this should result in a greater number of them choosing to make positive choices.

I am expanding on this approach to address all issues of digital safety and citizenship. But my approach is more extensive. I have already done some surveying and have found that, as I anticipated, the majority of young people are making positive choices — in their privacy settings, who they add as “friends,” their perspectives on hurtful digital behavior, their perspectives on the stupidity of sexting. Additionally, I have found that many are also willing to step in and try to stop their peers if they are causing harm — and they really respect those who do step in to privately tell someone to stop, tell an adult, or publicly protest.

But in addition to just asking for normative behavior, I am asking students to provide the reasons for their choices. For those who report positive choices, their reasons follow a typical pattern. Either they report trying to achieve a positive objective (e.g., “I set my privacy settings to friends only so only those people I know and trust can see what I post”) or they state a desire to avoid a negative consequence (e.g., “I do not add people I do not know as a friend because I want to avoid creeps”). So by advising students both of the positive social norms and why students have chosen these norms, I think we have a stronger approach.

For example, consider the effectiveness of posters with statements like this:

  • 75% of (name of school) students have set their SNS privacy settings to “Friends Only.” Why? “So that only people I know and trust can see my personal material.”
  • 89% of (name of school) students don’t like to see hurtful material posted online. “What will they think of you if you do this?”
  • 94% of (name of school) students would tell someone who asked for a nude pix, “No way.” Why? “Because this person could easily distribute the pix and your reputation would be trashed.”
  • What words do (name of school) students use to describe a person who steps in to help someone being harmed? “Brave and caring.” “Kind and helpful.” “A true leader.” “Awesome.” “A hero.”

I am also looking for information that can contribute to developing better skills. For example, I ask students if they were very angry and were thinking about posting something really hurtful, what would make them stop, and the most frequent answer (75% in the survey I did in one district) was that they would think about how they would feel if someone did that to them (good old “Golden Rule”). Another reason that had a very high ranking was “I would think about what other people would think of me.”

So then, as we encourage students to step in to to stop the harm, we look at what they say they might do. The highest ranking intervention approach reported in this district was to privately tell the person causing the harm to stop — which is actually the best approach because it allows the person causing the harm to not feel publicly challenged (and 59% of the students in this district said they would do this).

This approach also discusses positive skills, e.g., “If you see that someone is posting hurtful material, you can privately tell them they need to stop, acknowledge that they might be feeling angry, but advise them that they would not feel good if someone did the same thing to them and that other people will not like this and will not want to be friends. If this doesn’t work, be sure to tell an adult.”

Lastly, in the surveys that I am creating, I will also collect incident data. This way, districts can conduct surveys on an annual basis to track incidents, risk behavior, and positive social norms. They can use some of the data to support both informal education (posters, screen savers) as well as more formal instructional activities.

Also I strongly suggest that districts have their high school students collect and analyze this data and then prepare presentations that they take to the middle schools. High school students will have much more authority with middle school students. And then they ask their middle school students to go and talk with their intermediate grade students.

Now I have not proven this will be effective yet — but all of the existing research strongly suggest that this will be effective. And I have accountability built in. If the incident rates do not go down, risk behavior rates go down, and positive behavior goes up, then the district needs to ask the students why this is.

Based on this research-based approach, consider why it is so wrong for some in this field to be telling everyone that 85% of students are engaging in cyberbullying. This message translates to young people that everyone is doing it, so if they are angry at someone they are perfectly justified in sending them hurtful messages or disparaging them online — because this is typical teen behavior.

Also, it sure does not help us in transitioning to Web 2.0 if the news is that cyberbullying is at an epidemic level. But it isn’t. And my approach will demonstrate the positive norms of students, which should also translate to greater willingness to also use these technologies for instruction.

ETCJ: What are the obstacles in the way of this solution?

Nancy Willard: The biggest obstacle right now is that the financial situation of schools is so bad that it is challenging for them to think about adding anything new. Also, all of the state and local funds for safe schools have been cut — and these decisions are made by the professionals who are most likely to understand how to effectively integrate this kind of an approach — working with the educational technology professionals.

Beyond this, the challenge is simply outreach and professional development. This includes outreach to university faculty as well as the need for extensive outreach to state agencies and school districts. But I think that, once this approach is outlined, many people will immediately see this as a very positive direction. I strongly recommend that all issues of digital safety and citizenship be addressed by a district or school team that includes risk prevention professionals (principals, counselors, school resource officers) as well as educational technology professionals and librarians.

When the safe schools folks and educational technology specialists and librarians start talking about this they will discover they have something in common: Risk professionals know that a fear-based approach to prevention is not effective. And ed tech professionals and librarians certainly do not want fear-based messages either.

ETCJ: Why are you personally interested in this problem?

Nancy Willard: Not all those who wander are lost. I was a special education teacher of emotionally at risk students. Then I became an attorney and practiced computer and copyright law. This was in Eugene, Oregon, where Dave Moursund was starting ISTE. I became involved in some of the initial professional development activities related to educational technology. I decided this was more interesting than law practice. I helped to formulate the vision for the Oregon Public Education Network and later helped about 40% of Oregon school districts write their first technology literacy plans.

All of these issues merged. There was a need for someone who understood youth risk and effective risk prevention, legal issues, and technology in schools. I wrote an analysis of legal and risk prevention issues related to Internet use policies in 1995 — and have been focusing on these issues ever since. I am constantly working with a foot in each of these “rings.” Which means I dance quite a bit. ;)

Most recently, I established a private email discussion group of this nation’s top researchers and risk prevention professionals to address youth risk online. We are committed to:

  • Multidisciplinary collaboration — we have researchers in psychology, counseling, criminal justice, social work, educational technology, library science. Also we have risk prevention professionals, educational technology professionals, law officers and school librarians.
  • Scientific integrity — it is essential to be dedicated to an accurate understanding of the research — recognizing that sometimes these issues have not been well-investigated and sometimes it is necessary to critically evaluate the research. For example, there was one academic study out of UCLA that reported over 70% cyberbullying incident rate — but the definition of cyberbullying was exceptionally broad — and the survey respondents were solicited for an opt-in online survey. Thus, those who had experienced cyberbullying were more likely to respond. But, this limitation aside, some of the other findings were helpful — such as the percentage of youth who had not reported because they felt they should resolve these issues on their own.
  • Effective prevention with ongoing evaluation. There are no research-based best practices in this area. So it is essential to ground our work in what we know is effective risk prevention.  We know that assemblies with guest presenters, having kids sign pledges, and spreading fear-based statements are entirely ineffective. We know that telling students not to cyberbully because this could cause someone to suicide is not only not effective — it is dangerous! But we also know it is very important to ensure that schools and districts adopt a continuous improvement approach — always seeking local data to determine the effectiveness of their local efforts.
  • Empowerment of youth. We need to focus our efforts on helping young people make positive choices and resolve negative situations independently — knowing when it is necessary or will be helpful to involve adults. It is also imperative to encourage and empower witnesses to step in to assist others — or report really serious situations to adults.

We are making plans to create a nonprofit organization and shift to a public forum.

ETCJ: Nancy, thank you very much for taking time out of your very busy schedule to talk with us. Best wishes on your seminar next week in Milan.

Nancy Willard has degrees in special education and law. She taught “at risk” children, practiced computer law, and was an educational technology consultant before focusing her professional attention, since 1995, on issues of youth risk online and effective management of student Internet use. Visit her web site:

14 Responses

  1. Two very different resources going in the sense of what Nancy Willard advocates in this interview:

    1) As to getting the actual facts: EU KidsOnline – Enhancing Knowledge Regarding European Children’s Use, Risk and Safety Online: a project of the London School of Economics, in collaboration with the European Union. See in particular the various reports and documents concerning the survey they conducted in 25 EU countries, on a sample of 25’000 + children aged 9-16 and their parents. The executive summaries of the survey report are available in all EU languages.
    (via Crianças precisam de mais ajuda para bloquear ameaças online, afirma estudo Europeu sobre Internet on Tito de Morais’ Miúdos Seguros Na Netblog).

    2) As to showcasing positive actions by young people themselves: Take Action + Get Justin Bieber To Record Your V-Mail Greeting where Justin Bieber partners with MTV’s A Thin Line project and Facebook to ask young people to share their actions to stop digital abuse.

  2. I almost universally support the notion that it is better to educate youth about the ways of the world than it is to shield them from it and then send them out into it with neither the knowledge nor the skills to deal with it. In this case I agree that this can and should be done to the greatest degree possible. As Nancy points out, the challenge is that so much of it happens in environments over which the school has no control, so it is essential that some kind of learning take place within the school itself so that students can transfer what they learn into their outside lives.

    As a part of the moderating staff of an extremely large online community, I am often a part of back room discussion about dealing with our own versions of cyberbullies–and we certainly have them. In our case, they usually take the form of people whose inability to form coherent arguments drives them to resort to insults, personal attacks, and other forms of bullying. In the back room, we have moderators who argue for swift and decisive action against even the mildest form of bullying. I am in the opposite camp, arguing that only the most egregious examples should be dealt with that way.

    Nancy spoke of “norms,” and when a community develops norms, it is able to police itself and maintain those norms without a need for external regulation. When the authorities in the community are there to regulate behavior, then members wait for those regulators to act when they see something wrong. On the other hand, when those regulators are less ready to wield that authority, then the community itself takes over that role by reminding the offenders that they are violating the norms.

    In that environment, I observe that when violators are moderated by having their posts removed and through other disciplinary actions, they generally get angry and hostile. When they return they may be more careful about working, but their behaviors remain the same in general. In contrast, when they are chastened in writing by respected peers, their behaviors eventually change. They learn that not only do insults not win the day in these discussions, you lose the respect of those around you.

  3. Here is a brilliant video produced by a 14-year old Bulgarian student for the Safer Internet Day:

  4. This thread enters the space of International in that when we did the Summit on Media for Children, initially the subject was not brought up. It is a problem in many ways. In rural Virginia the fear of difficulty creates a blocking of the use of the Internet . I believe that Bill Belsey has also done some work in this area and started early / He is from Canada and starts with the idea of Bullying as the reference.

  5. A Conference on Bullying Prevention took place at the White House on March 10, 2011. It was streamed live both on the White House site and on Facebook.
    See the video of its opening session, uploaded on the same day in the White House YouTube channel.

    Original description:

    HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius moderates the opening session of the Conference on Bullying Prevention, a discussion of how we can all work together to end bullying as an accepted practice and create a safer environment for our kids to grow up in. March 10, 2011.

    The discussion between scholars and experts Sue Swearer, Justin Patchin, Katherine Bradshaw, George Sugai, who further developped several points made by Nancy Willard in the interview above, starts at ca 8m55s.
    See also the rich resources gathered in the site, which was launched at the conference. Further info and links in Anne Collier’s March 09 “Bullying-prevention summit at the White House” announcement of the conference and her Takeaways from the bullying-prevention summit summary of it.

  6. There was an amazing happening at the SITE AACE conference. That was that the Cyberbulluing game, and toolkit were shared with those who teach teachers, the general public and the teachers from Nashville attending the conference.
    I did a poster session of the game and was overwhelemed by the people who came to learn, look and pay attention.
    Karen Cator came to Nashville to share the National Technology Plan, and suggested that we think school, tools, and the rules for thinking about
    the subject. will have a SIG, we have 35 people who signed up.
    The posters and the game were most effective for informal interest. The discussion that was a part of the workshop had participants from K- Graduate School. THere was never a dull moment.

    This group , was furnished as one way to help and will give the toolkit tor free to all.

    The WhiteHouse of course had their own initiative.

    And there is this. site.

    We are starting to work with Kean University, and Pace University in New Jersey in a set of ideational scaffolding that encompass the learning landscape.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  7. National Education Technology Plan 2010 | U.S. Department of Education
    “By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” —President Barack Obama, Address to Congress, February 24, 2009

  8. […] é uma paixão minha e foi antes de Nancy Willard ou Parry Aftab entrou nas discussões, mas congratulo-me com toda a ajuda que as crianças […]

  9. […] Almansi, C. (2011, Feb. 14). Cyberbullying: An interview with nancy willard. Retrieved from […]

  10. […] Cyberbullying: An Interview with Nancy Willard | Educational Technology and Change Journal […]

  11. […] Almansi, Claude (2011). Cyberbullying: An Interview with Nancy Willard. Retrieved from […]

  12. […] Almansi, C. (February 14, 2011). Cyberbullying: An Interview with Nancy Willard. Educational Technology & Change. Retrieved from […]

  13. […] Almansi, Claude (2011) Cyberbullying: An Interview with Nancy Willard. Educational Technology and Change. Retrieved from […]

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