School Climate & Safety

What if Online Bullying Behavior Also Happened in Person? For Kids, It Often Does.

By Evie Blad — October 17, 2017 2 min read
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A new public service announcement asks viewers to imagine what it would look like if people were as quick to say hurtful things in person as they are online. But, for kids, the line between behavior “in the real world” and behavior on the internet might not be as clear as we think.

Monica Lewinsky—who has taken a role as an anti-bullying advocate decades after her time as an intern in the Clinton White House—created the “In Real Life” ad in collaboration with ad agency BBDO New York. It shows actors reciting real, hurtful internet comments while unsuspecting people around them react.

“I wanted to creatively demonstrate the difference between our online and offline behavior in a thought-provoking way,” Lewinsky told People magazine.

The ad shows how “people hiding behind a screen will write something they’d never say to someone’s face—and what that says about the inhumanity of their actions,” she said. “It’s a stark and shocking mirror to people to rethink how we behave online versus the ways that we would behave in person.”

Online comments that are targeted, repeated, and intended to harm are considered cyberbullying. Studies have found that students who are bullied online are often bullied at school as well, though that in-person bullying might not always look like it does in Lewinsky’s PSA.

While bullying is a squishy term that is applied broadly in conversations between parents and educators, researchers say it involves repetition, an intent to harm, and an imbalance of power between the victim and the perpetrator. At school, bullying can be blunt, hurtful comments, but it can also take more subtle forms, like efforts to socially isolate an unpopular student. Some researchers have said cyberbullying should be considered a form of bullying rather than a separate behavior.

These two charts, from the Cyberbullying Research Center, show the results of a 2016 survey that details the overlap between cyberbullying and in-person bullying.

“It has long been known that there is significant overlap between school and online bullying,” the research center said in explaining its findings. “We observed this again in our most recent dataset. For example, 83 percent of the students who had been cyberbullied recently (in the last 30 days), had also been bullied at school recently. Similarly, 69 percent of the students who admitted to bullying others at school also bullied others online. So it is very likely that the causes and correlates of bullying influence behaviors and experiences across environments: What makes someone an attractive target at school makes them a good target online; what causes someone to be mean at school also causes them to be mean online.”

Related reading about bullying and cyberbullying:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.