A few weeks ago, I traveled to meet with cyber bullying experts and media in three Asian cities: Tokyo, Hong Kong and Beijing. I also had several conversations with parents in each market that furthered my knowledge of just how similar the online safety issues are around the world. For example, in each city, at least one parent had cause to state a version of “my child knows more about technology than I do.” Even in the high-tech capital of the world, Tokyo, I met parents who were unsure of how to manage the devices and mobile access their children have to the Internet. At the very least, maybe we can all stop beating ourselves up at failing to be full time experts with technology and reassure ourselves that through application of time-tested parenting techniques, we can get a handle on this 21st century issue.
In summary: cyber bullying is as big an issue in Asia as it is elsewhere. The response in Japan focuses on the schools as an environment to monitor, educate and guide young people. Hong Kong’s community seems to engage in cyber bullying activity up through older grades than is seen in the US. Many highly visible celebrity and viral stories about online bullying have raised awareness of the issue. And in China, there is growing concern about online privacy because young people don’t take advantage of privacy settings or use apps and programs that undermine their privacy. And in all locations there was great interest in the possible benefit of laws to address cyber bullying and what other programs are shown to be effective in the US to limit or stop the problem.
There were certainly differences in what I heard talked about in each city I visited. In Tokyo, I found, through a meeting with a government official, that Japanese society expects schools to monitor the online activities of their students. In fact, the schools often hire people to review social networking sites and message boards, looking for posts from their students. There are even outsourced services available for schools that can’t afford their own monitors. Also, the government requires schools to report cyber bullying cases. As a result they have excellent statistics on what they believe to be going on, school by school. They’ve also developed educational programs for their teachers to help them understand technology and how to help students deal with cyber bullying.
I also heard terms in Japan not used anywhere else. People discussed the concern that cyber bullying cases can bring shame to a school, and destroy its reputation. And then parents wouldn’t allow their children to attend there in the future. Or that a student who misbehaves online might bring shame to their own family through their posts and inappropriate photos. As a result of the increased scrutiny of schools and parents, young people are moving their online activities to private, kid-only social networks and sites, where you require an invitation or a password to gain access. This means, less of the child’s online activity is visible to the parents and the school and not likely to pop up in a web search for the school’s name.
Japanese media were highly curious about the US legal approach to addressing the issue of cyber bullying. Japan doesn’t have any specific statutes regarding cyber bullying. As a result, I had to explain why each state is developing their own laws, and why one state, California for example, might have more than one law but each compliments the previous laws. I’m not a lawyer and certainly not as expert at explaining our legal system but I hope I provided a good explanation.
In my brief visit to Hong Kong, I spoke to a group of university students and then a group of media representatives and was joined in my efforts by several local professors from the University of Hong Kong. We had a lively discussion of the research (global and local) on the phenomenon of cyber bullying and the differences between the US and Hong Kong. For example, in Hong Kong they are seeing cyber bullying activity commonly peak at the equivalent of 11th grade. In the US, the peak activity is just a little earlier, in 9th or 10th grade. Local research indicates the victimization rate is 30.8% of youth will be cyber bullied, compared to a global average rate of 20% according to Hinduja and Patchin (www.cyberbullying.us). In Hong Kong they find more of the perpetrators to be male, while victims are about equally male/female.
Similar to Japan, in Hong Kong there is not a specific law against cyber bullying. They still feel the phenomenon is a relatively new one but there are several high profile news stories of celebrities who have been hounded online by the public. Local expert Elvis Ng of the Hong Kong Welfare Society says that young people pile on because celebrities don’t seem like real people who can be hurt. He shared a news story in Hong Kong of a young bride-to-be who posted a joking warning on her Facebook page that her guests had better come prepared with cash gifts of at least 500 HK dollars or they shouldn’t come. It went viral and people said they would crash the event to punish her for her rudeness.
Now, another concept I heard in Hong Kong but nowhere else was the need to teach young people ethics and morality, in order to prevent cyber bullying and bullying behaviors. Among the professors we had on our panel, there was a discussion about teaching positive values to help fight against human nature. Also they talked about teaching critical thinking skills (one made the joke that in Hong Kong they’ve only taught half of it, just to be critical without thinking.)
My last stop on this whirlwind tour was in Beijing. I expected many things to be different having never been in mainland China before. Imagine my surprise to find that the issue of cyber bullying is one that unifies our global Internet community! I met a professor from Peking University, Professor Li Lei, who shared his research into the many benefits of being online for young people. He discussed the benefits of youth exploring issues of identity (including sexual identity) while having anonymity. He even referenced the famous New Yorker cartoon about this issue (“on the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog”). Professor Li discussed the need of young people to have a sense of intimacy and this led to a presentation of the risks of using the online world to fill that need. So while the Internet is a necessity everywhere (and in China) some do get addicted or mistake online relationships with real ones. (Sounds just like home?)
Finally, we talked at length about issues of privacy. The students I met and the members of the media raised concerns about people failing to use privacy settings or using apps and software that share your private information without your knowledge. In China an estimated 41.8% of youth use privacy settings, meaning most do not (according to Professor Li.) Girls tend to be more careful about their privacy than boys.
We talked about the way youth in China engage in cyber bullying or just inappropriate online behaviors. Most of it was quite familiar; flaming someone, harassing, defaming by spreading rumors, pretending to be someone else, forwarding private information and so forth. Boys tend to flame each other while girls tend to use more deceptive practices.
Clearly our global community is suffering the same issues and there isn’t any one recommended course of treatment, I’m afraid. I don’t think laws will fix the issue of cyber bullying though it might reassure parents of a tool to have that they currently don’t. Another issue, raised more in Japan than in my other two stops, was concern that even with effective laws addressing cyber bullying, the police lack the skills to properly investigate online activities. A recent story about a cyber hacker’s exploits in the Japanese news helped me understand why the local people I met would feel that way. In my discussions with the researchers and with the media, I shared some of the techniques I’ve been reading about that might be worth exploring in Asia: digital literacy programs to help young people use privacy and security settings properly; concepts of “digital Sabbaths” to help families put limits on their use of technology; social norm campaigns that have proven to curb physical bullying might prove similarly effective for online bullying, and I recommended finding ways older children can coach younger children on techniques for safe online use.