USF Undergraduate Research: Cyberbullying Not Just an American Issue
By Daylina Miller
TAMPA, Fla. (March 31, 2010) - Phoebe Prince was just 15 years old when she committed suicide in January, spurned on by harassing text messages and Facebook posts from jealous schoolmates in her Massachusetts hometown.
In 2007, 13-year-old Megan Meier of Missouri killed herself when a MySpace friendship went awry. Afterwards, it was discovered that boy who told her the world was better off without her was actually a twisted case of cyberbullying.
But while many think of cyberbullying as a United States phenomenon, it is actually part of a much larger picture. According to new research done by USF student Tahseen Ismail, the issue of cyberbullying extends to many other countries, especially in Asia where highly-wired countries like South Korea have an extensive history of cyberbullying.
Ismail’s research – which is being presented Thursday at USF’s Undergraduate Research Symposium - explores the prevalence of cyber-bullying among college students in South Korea and their perceptions of cyber-bullying and of regulations to stop its occurrence.
“Cyberbullying is taken to a whole new level in Asia. You have mobs of people ganging up on one person,” Ismail said.
In one case, a Korean-American man recruited by talent agents in South Korea to be a pop idol wrote comments on his MySpace page that caused an Internet backlash against him.
“There was a petition for him to commit suicide signed by 3,000 people before it was taken down,” Ismail said. “I can’t fathom how that’s possible, but I guess it shows the intensity of how people feel.”
In 50 years, South Korea has gone from a war-ravaged country to one of the most wired in the world, with 94.3 percent of households having broadband access, according to Ismail’s research.
In face-to-face situations, Koreans are expected to control their emotions and hold back their real feelings, she said. But once online, it’s a different atmosphere.
“If you have a culture where you’re always saving face and you never say anything you mean and it’s so competitive, you let loose when you go on the Internet,” Ismail said. “You criticize freely and alleviate the stress of a hyper-competitive society and it leads to the problem of cyberbullying. The pitchforks and the torches come out on the Internet.”
Ismail’s research included a survey of university students to gain an understanding of their perceptions of cyberbullying and of current Internet regulations to help decrease it. With the help of her mentor, USF Honors College adjunct faculty member Chosun Kim, Ismail translated the survey into Korean and sent it to 272 students at four South Korean universities.
Ismail’s project was a requirement for the Honors College research major - a second major that requires research outside of her primary field of biomedical science. Encouraged by her advisors, Ismail presented her paper to the American Association of Behavioral and Social Sciences at their annual meeting last February and is now being considered for publication in their journal.
The students told Ismail that more than half of cyberbullying was being done by elementary and middle school students, despite South Korea’s attempt to regulate certain Internet sites. Almost three-quarters of the students knew a cyberbully victim and more than half knew a cyberbully.
“Focusing on elementary and middle school students right now is the key to decreasing cyberbullying,” Ismail said. “If you can do something to stop them or increase education at that level about the effects of cyberbullying, you can cut cyberbullying down by half. That’s just perception, but there is a truth to perception.”
Sadly, students thought 13 percent of cyberbullying was also being done by adults, an age group that should know better. To attempt to tamp down on such exchange, South Korean laws now require website with more than 100,000 hits a day require writers to submit their real names when they comment on a post.
“If you use your real name, you’re more likely to not post hurtful or cyberbullying comments,” Ismail said. “You’re more likely to feel ashamed.”
What was surprising was that half of Korean students surveyed said that the so-called “Real Name System” was necessary but not effective. They believe Internet regulations should be increased to help alleviate the issue of cyberbullying.
Ismail said what she found most surprising was that the overwhelming majority of students surveyed were unaware of resources that exist to help them if they have been victims of cyberbullying, even though South Korea has many.
“What is the use of having these educational resources when you don’t have a campaign to tell them that they exist?” Ismail said.
Ismail believes her research is beneficial because it provides a basic understanding of people’s perceptions about cyberbullying. Before researchers can focus on how to stop the practice, they must first understand the bullies’ mindset.
“If you can figure out how to alleviate the problem once it’s started, you can use those same measures in other countries to try and prevent it,” Ismail said.
The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.