Sharon Oosthoek | September 1, 2015Roughly one in four children and adolescents say they have been bullied on social media, according to a recent Canadian report. This statistic worries parents and educators alike: not only does cyberbullying put victims at greater risk of depression and academic difficulties, it has been linked to some high-profile suicides. Despite the media attention, remarkably little is known about how social media affects teens' motivations for posting mean messages or embarrassing photos, says Wilfrid Laurier University psychologist Danielle Law. "How we deal with cyberbullying depends on what motivated them to post harmful things," she says. "It's extremely important to look at intent." Law's study of more than 700 youths between the ages of 10 and 18 in British Columbia showed that those posting mean messages or embarrassing photos were more likely to do so because they were reacting to a perceived provocation and not because they were deliberately malicious. In other words, they interpreted another adolescent's comments on social media as threatening and felt the need to defend themselves. "They think, 'Oh, this person is being mean to me,' so they send a mean message back," says Law. "But in reality that person meant no harm and the statement was misinterpreted." It's easy to misinterpret things online because of the lack of non-verbal cues and tone of voice. This explains why previous research, including Law's work, shows adolescents' assumptions about others' behaviour can be wrong. Which is why experts suggest the best way to deal with reactive cyberbullying is to help young people communicate with one another more clearly. That is, thinking about how their message might be perceived by others before posting it and also thinking about how to respond to a perceived provocation before replying. This is especially important in the world of social media where conflicts can escalate more quickly than in face-to-face situations. "In real life, a victim may not fight back because they are smaller or more timid," says Law. "But online, anyone can post pictures and say mean things. This is why we tell people not to respond aggressively because they in turn become a bully and it escalates." A different kind of bully Her study also uncovered a small group of adolescents whose cyberbullying entailed creating hostile websites dedicated to demeaning their target. This group was deliberately malicious and more motivated by what Law calls "proactive reasons" designed to gain power or obtain specific goals. Strategies for dealing with this type of malicious cyberbully include working toward understanding the underlying reasons behind their behaviour. "What is currently happening is that we employ 'band-aid' solutions like detention, suspension, or reprimand by police – when really what we need is system that cares for the bully and helps them overcome the issues that have led them down this path," says Law. The ultimate goal of these strategies is of course to prevent cyberbullying, and Law's research was among the first to show what works and what doesn't. Controlling children's and teens' use of technology through strict rules or monitoring software is not effective, she discovered. Rather, open lines of communication between parents and adolescents are most closely linked to reduced cyberbullying. "Families with a strong sense of cohesion and ability to talk to each other openly and create boundaries together, rather than top-down approach, are most highly correlated with responsible use online," she says.