And why the term itself is so difficult to define. 

By Grace Elkus
Updated September 21, 2015
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Bullying and Internet safety recently ranked among the top five child health concerns, and online negativity is often considered an escalating problem for teens. But while the majority of parents are concerned about cyberbullying, they disagree on how to define it—and what the appropriate form of punishment is, according to a report from the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.

The poll, which looks at key health care issues and trends for U.S. children, included a national sample of 611 parents of teens ages 13 to 17. The parents were asked to label four hypothetical situations—ranging from spreading online rumors to ill-intentioned social media campaigns—as “definitely not cyberbullying,” “probably not cyberbullying,” “probably cyberbullying,” or “definitely cyberbullying." They were then prompted to choose from a list of punishments.

While the majority of parents (65 percent) said posting online that a student had sex at school is definitely cyberbullying, and 63 percent said yes, creating a Twitter campaign to elect a student for homecoming court as a cruel joke is also cyberbullying, fewer than half of parents considered sharing a photo altered to make a classmate appear fatter to be cyberbullying. Just 43 perecnt of parents felt that posting rumors that a student was caught cheating on a test was cyberbullying, the least of the four scenarios.

And it’s not just the actions themselves that parents disagree on.

"Not only are parents unsure about which actions should be considered cyberbullying. They also don't agree on penalties," Sarah J. Clark, lead researcher and associate director of the National Poll on Children’s Health, said in a statement. "Depending on the content of online rumors for example, parents recommended punishment ranging from making the student apologize to reporting the student to police."

A high number of parents—more than 20 percent—believe students who spread online rumors about sex should be referred to law enforcement. But fewer than 5 percent would give the same punishment to students posting rumors that a student was caught cheating on a test, instead recommending detention or suspension. This inconsistency in both definition and punishment makes it difficult for schools to take appropriate action, the researchers said.

"Growing recognition of the dangers of bullying has prompted calls for tougher laws and school sanctions, but our poll shows the huge challenge in establishing clear definitions and punishments for cyberbullying," Clark said. "Schools should consider these differing opinions, to avoid criminalizing teen behavior that is hard to define and enforce consistently."