Sites that Misuse Bullying Facts and Figures In Lots of Wrong Ways (For the Wrong Reasons)

Sad phoneIce cream sales rise dramatically in warmer months. So do incidents of sexual assault. Therefore, we can argue that eating ice cream causes assaults, right?

Wrong. We can’t make this connection because correlation (when two variables appear to relate) doesn’t imply causation.

In this case, there’s clearly a third variable at play. In this case, that would be hot weather. We know people eat more ice cream in the summer. And we know that the rate of sexual assaults (and of domestic violence and other kinds assaults as well)  also rises during warmer weather. But there is no other plausible linkage between frozen treats and rape.

Statistics for dummies. This is covered in the first class of every intro course on statistics. And yet we regularly see numbers being twisted to prove all sorts of theories. The correlation fallacy is just one of the many ways that can happen.

What am I so worked up about? This infographic, featured on Mashable July 8th. Some of the information (such as the suicide statistics) seems quite frankly out of whack with what we know about the subject. In other cases, the information is twisted to imply causation where none can be scientifically established (such as the claim that rising Internet use has caused a rise in teen suicides when CDC data actually shows a drop since 1995). It doesn’t say anything about the ways kids have used the Internet to reach out to others in danger of attempting suicide or self-harm, or even to save someone in imminent danger.

On the whole, the infographic builds an alarming argument about bullying and teen Internet use based on spurious / or unproven connections. And like many oversimplified arguments, this one omits a lot of positive connections as well, such as the ways technology can build online support communities for isolated LGBT youth or others or offer sound, non-judgmental information about teen sexuality, mental health issues and more. There is no mention of how kids can use technology to learn animation, advocate for causes they support, or connect to others in positive ways.

A highly respected member of an online group of youth risk experts reached out to the marketing team behind this infographic and expressed her concern. Happily, she was reassured that the errors were unintentional and the infographic would be revised. We are waiting to see if and when they do this, but at the time of writing it was still featured on Mashable and almost certainly going viral. I will post the revised infographic when it is released.

Whenever someone offers inaccurate information like this, you need to wonder why. In this case, the infographic was sponsored by an online educational organization unconnected to bullying. It seems they want to benefit from click-throughs to their site by using hot search terms like cyberbullying and teens. This could be a genuinely socially responsible move if well-researched and handled in a responsible way. But it’s so frustrating to watch those with unrelated motives and social agendas trying to profit from the genuine concern parents, kids and educators have with the issue of bullying.

Another site (whose URL I refuse to post, because I don’t want to drive any traffic their way) fills their site with all sorts of ambiguous anti-bullying talk as a way to sell anti-bullying “powerbands” and concert tickets at $20 a pop. No mention is made of how the money collected will contribute to bullying prevention or awareness.

It’s so dispiriting to see how a hot social issue like bullying gets subverted to the marketing of unrelated things or gets used as a money-making initiative. This kind of profiteering goes beyond bad judgement — it also fans the flames of hysteria when clear-headed thinking is most needed.

One response to “Sites that Misuse Bullying Facts and Figures In Lots of Wrong Ways (For the Wrong Reasons)

  1. Thank you! Those were my exact thoughts when I first saw that infographic as well. I’ve expressed similar frustrations here. So grateful to have been directed toward your site. 🙂
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