Estimates of the number of teens who have experienced cyberbullying are all over the map. I can point you to a paper published in a peer-reviewed academic journal that says that 72% of students have been cyberbullied while another published study puts the number at 5.5%. The numbers are similarly varied when it comes to the number of students who have cyberbullied others. So how many teens have been involved? Last summer we reviewed all of the published papers on cyberbullying to try to get a handle on this question. These results were published in our book Cyberbullying Prevention and Response: Expert Perspectives, which included contributions from a number of knowledgeable sources from around the United States (see a list of authors here).
As of the summer of 2011, there had been at least forty-two articles on the topic of cyberbullying published in peer-reviewed journals across a wide variety of academic disciplines. Although there are additional articles being published quite regularly and it is likely that we have missed some published works, this review represents the most comprehensive summary of available research findings at the time of its writing.
Among the thirty-five papers published in peer-reviewed journals prior to the summer of 2011 that included cyberbullying victimization rates, figures ranged from 5.5% to 72% with an average of 24.4% (see Chart 2.1). Most of studies (n=22) estimate that anywhere from 6% to 30% of teens have experienced some form of cyberbullying. These findings are consistent with our own research over the last ten years. As illustrated in this chart, the percent of youth who responded to our surveys who have experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime ranged from 18.8% to 40.6% in our studies, with an average of 27.3%. Our most recent study based on data collected in the spring of 2010 found that about 21% of youth had been the target of cyberbullying. To be clear, this generally means that one out of every five kids you know has been cyberbullied.
Relatedly, the number of youth who admit to cyberbullying others at some point in their lives is a bit lower, though quite comparable. Among twenty-seven papers published in peer-reviewed journals that included cyberbullying offending rates (see Chart 2.3), 3% to 44.1% of teens reported cyberbullying others (average of 18%). Across all of our studies (see this chart), the rates ranged from about 11% to as high as 20% in our most recent study. The average percent of youth who reported cyberbullying others in our studies was 16.8%. This once again means that, generally speaking, slightly less than one out of every five adolescents you know has at some point cyberbullied someone else. These rates are also consistent with the weight of the available research conducted by others.
Much of the variation in the figures reported across these studies can be explained by the methodology utilized. For example, some researchers define cyberbullying very broadly (any online harm), whereas others define it more narrowly (repeated harassment using cell phones). Moreover, some studies sample middle school students and others target high school-aged youth. Some studies ask students to report any experience they have had during their lifetime while others focus on cyberbullying experienced in the previous 30 days. Some use online samples while others survey students at school or in their homes. The variations are endless! As you might expect, those studies that sampled older students who were online using a broad definition of cyberbullying were more likely to report higher prevalence rates. Some of the lower rates were found from phone surveys where respondents might not be fully forthcoming with their experiences since mom or dad or someone else may have been listening in on the conversation. There are strengths and weaknesses in every research methodology and we just need to be mindful of what those are.
Despite the range of figures reported in the research, the actual number of youth who experience cyberbullying (either as an aggressor or target) is probably lower than some would have you believe. Some media reports would like us to think that we are in the midst of a “cyberbullying epidemic” or that cyberbullying is “increasing dramatically!” From my perspective if just one teen experiences cyberbullying it is too many, and Sameer and I work to reduce the number, no matter how large it is. But it is misleading to characterize cyberbullying as an epidemic that is out of control. Research doesn’t support that conclusion. To be fair, research does demonstrates that teens are reluctant to tell adults about their experiences with cyberbullying, so the numbers reported in the above studies could be a bit low. That said, anonymous and confidential research is usually much more reliable than other methods of determining adolescent experiences with problematic or deviant behavior.
As researchers we have to look at all of the available evidence (both quantitative and qualitative, formal and informal) to determine a reasonable estimate of the number of youth who experience cyberbullying. From that perspective I think it is likely that at least 20-25% of school-aged youth have experienced cyberbullying at some point recently (within a few months). And while we don’t see any compelling evidence that this number has increased significantly over the last 10 years, we will continue to follow trends to see if that changes. Of course more research is necessary and we will evaluate and analyze any new figures that come out in the coming years so that we can refine our understanding and assess any changes that might be occurring over time.
For more information, please see:
Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2012). Cyberbullying: An Update and Synthesis of the Research. In J. W. Patchin and S. Hinduja (Eds.), Cyberbullying Prevention and Response: Expert Perspectives (Chapter 2, pp. 13-35). New York: Routledge.
...identifying the causes and consequences of cyberbullying