School Climate & Safety

Researchers: Cyberbullying Not as Widespread, Common as Believed

By Nirvi Shah — August 04, 2012 2 min read
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While parents may spend more time worrying about their kids being terrorized by text, tweet, Facebook, or Formspring, new research suggests that cyberbullying “is a low-prevalence phenomenon, which has not increased over time and has not created many ‘new’ victims and bullies, that is, children and youth who are not also involved in some form of traditional bullying.”

The research, presented here this week at the American Psychological Association convention, involved 450,490 students in 1,349 American schools surveyed between 2007 and 2010 and another 9,000 Norwegian students at 41 schools. It was intended to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions about cyberbullying.

The study, by longtime bullying researcher Dan Olweus of the University of Bergen, Norway, found that while, on average, 18 percent of American students said they had been verbally bullied; those who said they had been cyberbullied was about 4.5 percent. About 11 percent of Norwegian students said they had been verbally bullied, compared to about 3.4 percent who said they had been bullied in some electronic format. The study was published online in May in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology.

To discern the frequency, students were asked specific questions and reminded that it’s not bullying when they are teased in a playful or friendly way. Electronic bullying, as defined by the survey, included bullying via email, instant messaging, in a chat room, on a website—presumably including social networks—or through a text message.

The research also shows “there has been no systematic increase in cyberbullying,” Olweus said, despite an increase in the number of youths with cell phones and on social networking sites. (Facebook is considering expanding access to younger people, which has concerned some educators.)

Of the American students who had been exposed to cyberbullying, 88 percent had been bullied in at least one other way.

“To be cyberbullied or to cyberbully other students seems to a large extent to be part of a general pattern of bullying where use of the electronic media is only one possible form, and, in
addition, a form with a quite low prevalence,” the study says. “These results also suggest that even if most cyberbullying actually occurs outside school hours, as has been documented in several other surveys, many—very likely, most—episodes of cyberbullying originate in the school setting.”

The study notes that “bullying implies a form of relationship with certain characteristics and the term should not be used as a blanket term for any form of negative or aggressive act.”

While electronic bullying can have the same effects of traditional bullying—depression, poor self-esteem, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, headaches, and effects on sleep—it is
difficult to tell whether or to what extent these problems are a result of electronic bullying since the majority of cyberbullied children and youth are also harassed in other ways.

(Some states have amended existing bullying laws or passed new ones just to address cyberbullying. And lawsuits over bullying online or other electronic methods are increasing in number.)

Olweus writes that because traditional bullying is far more common than cyberbullying and that the great majority of cyberbullied students are also bullied in more typical ways, “it is natural to recommend schools to direct most of their efforts to counteracting traditional bullying,” ideally using an evidence-based approach. His research has found that levels of electronic bullying decline along with traditional bullying in these schools.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.