Inside Rensselaer
NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant Supports Study Into Cyber-Bullying

Although he is still analyzing the data from his doctoral research on cyber-bullying, Nathan Fisk has already reached a personal conclusion: the real culprit in cyber-bullying isn’t the Internet. It’s the growing separation between the world of adults and children — a world in which one child can torment another with seeming impunity because no one is present to act as referee.

“It has very little to do with the Internet and a lot to do with how children are positioned in society,” Fisk said. “Children are kept in an increasingly insular world. The Internet is one of the few places they can go.”

It has very little to do with the Internet and a lot to do with how children are positioned in society. Children are kept in an increasingly insular world. The Internet is one of the few places they can go.” — Nathan Fisk

Fisk, a science and technology studies doctoral candidate, has surveyed 5,000 public school students in grades K-12. He has convened a dozen focus groups of students in six districts — three of them in the Capital Region. And he has met with administrators closest to the problem in each district.

Fisk’s investigation into the world of cyber-bullying is funded by a $10,000 NSF dissertation improvement grant. The results of his research, which is likely to draw interest from parents and educators, will be compiled into a report available to the public (as well as confidential individual reports for each district).

Fisk’s interest in cyber-bullying stemmed from his work on the Rochester Institute of Technology Computer Use & Ethics Survey. Fisk spent six years working on the project while completing his undergraduate and graduate education at RIT. His work on the RIT survey changed the focus of his career from information technology to the sociology of Internet safety.

When it came to his doctoral project, Fisk said he started with a broad theme of Internet safety among children, but cyber-bullying quickly took center stage.

Working with a consultant from the Washington Saratoga Warren Hamilton Essex BOCES, Fisk enlisted the cooperation of the six districts included in his study. The survey includes a series of about 20 questions gauging the prevalence of virtual and real-world experience: Does bullying happen in your school? Are there many victims? Many offenders? Where does it happen? The survey also includes open-ended questions asking students to describe bullying in their school.

Contrary to the adult emphasis on cyber-bullying, Fisk is finding that kids don’t draw a line between what happens online and what happens in the real world. That has implications for policy and education.

“When you talk about cyber-bullying, you stop talking about what’s going on in the playground, even though they’re related things. They’re so closely linked that it’s not useful to kids to draw that line,” Fisk said. “If that’s the case, then why is the education that we give kids so focused on that distinction?”

Fisk said he recognizes that the Internet has changed the way bullying takes place, “but talking about it solely in terms of what goes on online ignores the other problem. It becomes a problem with the Internet rather than a problem with people.”

In addition to data and analysis, Fisk’s final report will include a critique of current cyber-safety curriculum, and discussion on best practices for curriculum development and policy development. He also hopes to host cyber-safety workshops in his subject districts.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 5, Number 3, February 18, 2011
©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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