Why we are still searching for solutions to cyberbullying: an analysis of the North American responses to cyberbullying under the theory of systemic desensitization.

AuthorChoo, Hannah E.Y.
PositionAn Update in the Law of Privacy


Amanda Todd. Rehtaeh Parsons. Todd Loik. Rebecca Sedwick. Jamey Redeemer. Tyler dementi. These names have recently dominated the headlines in North America as victims of cyberbullying. The increasing use of social media by young people have expanded the traditional form of bullying that took place on school grounds to virtually anywhere else they could go online. While some see it as a "widespread problem" and others go further by classifying it is a "digital epidemic," what is certain is that cyberbullying has now existed for more than a decade. (1)

One of the earliest cyberbullying victims in North America was Ryan Halligan, who died by suicide in 2003 after being tormented with homophobic instant messages. (2) Cyberbullying was soon described as an "emerging threat to young Canadians"--the "always on" generation. (3)

The sensationalization of cyberbullying incidents by the media led to the public cry for accountability, prompting different parental, educational and governmental responses. (4) But are the responses even helping? Why is there still an ongoing search for solutions to cyberbullying? The growing number of cyberbullying victims dying by suicide, coupled with the fact that young people are now perceiving cyberbullying to be "routine, inevitable and an unfortunate feature of their online interactions," raise concerns about the preventive and ameliorative efforts that have been put forward so far. (5)

The main responders to cyberbullying are parents, educators and the government, all who are continuously struggling for answers. Yet their struggles are not surprising, especially when looking at their responses under the framework of systematic desensitization. Organizing the parental, educational and governmental fears of cyberbullying into an anxiety hierarchy helps illustrate the gaps in their efforts.

The systematic desensitization framework reveals how most of the responses to cyberbullying to date are mere coping mechanisms, rather than effective mechanisms, allowing parents, educators and the government to control their fear of cyberbullying but not cyberbullying itself. In other words, their responses have succeeded in only reducing their anxieties about the issue, misleading them to think that they are equipped with the appropriate tools to fight. This raises major concerns not only because it continues to leave the core players with ineffective, short term and reactive responses, but also because it deflects their focus from effective, long term and proactive responses.

While systematic desensitization is a type of therapy that helps people overcome a phobia, cyberbullying is one phobia that must not be overcome by becoming desensitized to it, but rather, by getting to the root of the issue-- through better education.


Systematic desensitization was first developed by psychiatrist Joseph Wolphe to help people overcome phobias. (6) The process involves constructing a hierarchy of anxiety-producing stimuli, from the least fearful to the most fearful. An example of an anxiety hierarchy for a patient with a fear of spiders can consist of a picture of a spider at the bottom of the hierarchy, to being in the same room with a spider, and finally, to holding a spider.

Coping mechanisms, such as meditation or breathing, are provided at each stage and are essential because they provide the patient with the means to control the fear. (7) The coping mechanisms help the patient progress towards the top of the hierarchy. Soon, the fear is unlearned and the anxiety gradually becomes extinguished. (8)

After becoming systematically desensitized, using the above example, the patient will no longer fear the spider. It must be noted that in the end, it is not the spider (the fear) that has been controlled, but the patient's reaction to the spider.

  1. The Process of Systematic Desensitization through the Eyes of Parents

    Parents play an important role in both educating and protecting children from cyberbullying. However, parents are often at loss and overwhelmed when faced with the issue. A 2010 survey found that 30% of parents fear bullying and cyberbullying over kidnapping, domestic terrorism, car accidents, suicide or any other incident. (9) Not much has changed since then, as recent studies found that cyberbullying continues to be their biggest worry. (10) Despite the ample amount of information, resources and tips available for parents, why does cyberbullying remain to be their biggest concern? Applying the theory of systematic desensitization to parental fears of and responses to cyberbullying provides a possible explanation.

    The first step under the systematic desensitization framework consists of constructing an anxiety hierarchy. A hierarchy of typical fears from a parent's perspective, ranked from the least fearful at the bottom, to the most fearful at the top, can look like this:

    (A) Stage 1: Cyberbullying in General

    Cyberbullying in general is ranked the lowest anxiety-producing stimuli because parents often feel far removed from the issue. A fleeting "what if thought may cause parents to be anxious, but common coping mechanism at this stage include self- assurances that their child will not be involved in cyberbullying.

    Tricia Norman is the mother of Rebecca Sedwick, a twelve year-old girl from Florida who died by suicide after being cyberbullied. (11) During an interview with the NY Times, Ms. Norman stated that "you hear about [cyberbullying] all the time .... I never, ever thought it would happen to me or my daughter". (12)

    Ms. Norman's response is not surprising. A 2008 survey found that parents are not really aware of their child's online activity. (13) Nor did parents have a full understanding of their child as a victim of cyberbullying. (14) Not much has changed since then. A 2013 study found that parents continue to have an "inaccurate view of their children's online experiences". (15)

    Rather than overestimating, parents often underestimate whether or not their child has been a victim of cyberbullying. (16) In fact, the study revealed that "thinking one's child is smarter than others while online ... contribute to the increasing likelihood that parents underestimate risky online behaviours". (17) This was the case for Tera Murphy, who found out that her daughter had been cyberbullied for two years only after she attempted to die by suicide. (18)

    Parents' inaccurate views also explain why there are often low turnout rates at online-safety workshops. One principal believes it is because the "attitude among parents is 'It's not going to happen here'". (19) Others say that the "rates of parental ignorance about bullying ... may not be all that different from pre-internet times". (20) As a result, parents are easily overcoming the lowest level of the anxiety hierarchy through coping mechanisms that involve distancing themselves from the issue and by having imprecise views about their child's online activity.

    Such coping mechanisms, however, are preventing them from taking effective and proactive steps towards the issue, such as learning about cyberbullying and their child's online experiences, especially when "parents sometimes have no idea what their kids are doing online until it's too late .... No child is above the risk, or too smart for risks". (21)

    (B) Stage 2: Increasing News about Cyberbullying or Local Victim of Cyberbullying Dies by Suicide

    The next level of the hierarchy involves parents increasingly hearing news reports about cyberbullying, or about a local victim of cyberbullying dying by suicide. This causes more anxiety because it narrows the scope of the issue, bringing it much closer to home and to their attention.

    A common coping mechanism for parents at this stage is to look up tips on cyberbullying. As clinical social worker Devra Renner explains, for parents, "one of the things we tend to do is we either hop on the Internet and research everything we can, or we ask 5 million people what we should do". (22) While guidelines are arguably a proactive response to the issue, they end up as coping mechanisms primarily because of their shortcomings and inadequacies. Many of the guidelines that are readily available online fail to address the complexities of cyberbullying by simplifying or generalizing the issue. Some are also incomprehensive and outdated. As a result, these ineffective guidelines that parents turn to become another coping mechanism that merely helps them control their anxieties about cyberbullying.

    For example, one of the first websites that pops up after searching a "parent's guide to cyberbullying" is stopcyberbullying.org. (23) The website provides a step-by-step process called a "Quick guide on the escalating levels of response to cyberbullying incident", making it seem as if each step will progress according to plan. (24) Guidelines like these are common, yet they fail to recognize that there is no "one-size- fits-all" approach, especially in light of the growing research that shows how differences in gender, age and ethnicity affect the way children deal with cyberbullying. (25) However, these types of guidelines seem to be rarely updated and end up generalizing the issue, thereby misleading parents to think that there is a monolithic cyberbullying experience.

    Similarly, other guidelines generalize the issue by listing, under "warning signs of cyberbullying", factors such as a "child being visibly upset after internet use," "withdrawal from friends or activities," and "appearing depressed or sad". (26) These factors are applicable to cases like Jamey Rodemeyer, whose parents tried to talk to their son after he was displaying some of the warning signs. (27)

    However, the factors do not fit as well to cases like Amanda Todd or Todd Loick. In Amanda's case, despite her earlier suicide attempts, her mother Carol recalled her daughter getting better, going out with friends and feeling like a "normal teenager...

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