If you pay attention to the news reports of cyberbullying incidents (like we do), you would probably think that these inappropriate online behaviors are happening at epidemic levels. When we first started studying cyberbullying over a decade ago, Sameer and I would literally print out any news article we saw that talked about a cyberbullying incident – because they happened (or at least were reported) so infrequently. Now, it seems, cyberbullying occurs (and is reported) at an almost constant rate. To test this theory, set up a Google alert with “cyberbullying” and see how many articles come through every day. Your inbox will be inundated.
In contrast to this perspective, the argument has been advanced that cyberbullying is not occurring at levels that require our significant attention. Specifically, Professor Dan Olweus, who has done more to advance the scholarship of school bullying than anyone else in the world recently published an article in which he argued that “…cyberbullying is a basically low-frequent phenomenon and that there has not occurred a marked increase in the prevalence rates of cyberbullying over the past five or six years.” We agree with Professor Olweus on most issues but believe that the nature and extent of cyberbullying does warrant independent empirical, legal, and educational attention. We were honored to be invited to write a commentary on Professor Olweus’ remarks and those who are interested in this exchange can read our response here (you can also email us if you would like a copy of our paper).
So how much cyberbullying is really occurring? Is it an epidemic or a rarity? Well, the answer as you might guess is somewhere in between.
To be sure, we have covered this ground many times on this blog. You can also take a look at much of our original research that we include here. In Cyberbullying Prevention and Response: Expert Perspectives we reviewed all of the empirical research that had been published as of 2011 and found that across 35 refereed articles 5.5 to 72 percent of students had been cyberbullied and 6 to 30 percent of students had admitted to cyberbullying others. The School Crime Supplement of the National Crime Victimization Survey (which utilizes a representative sample of students in the U.S.) added a handful of cyberbullying questions to their survey in 2009 and those data showed that 6% reported being bullied “by electronic means anywhere.” Many additional articles have been published in the last two years but we rarely see numbers lower than 10% or higher than 40%.
In our own work, we’ve now surveyed nearly 14,000 middle and high school students from a variety of schools across the United States. Our first studies were online convenience samples, intended only to gather early information about an emerging problem. The last 6 studies we have done, however, have all been conducted among random samples of known student populations in schools. Across those samples, the percent of students who reported being the victim of cyberbullying ranged from 18.8 to 29.2 percent (average 23.9%). Similarly, 11.5 to 19.4 percent of students admitted to cyberbullying others at some point in their lifetimes (average 16.9%). (for more information about our methodology, please click here).
Even though we have done 8 different surveys over the past 9 years, we aren’t able to look at these data in a way that identifies trends because most involved different school populations. We have surveyed students in “District A” three separate times but don’t see much of a pronounced trend that shows the behaviors are increasing or decreasing. Our friends at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire have collected data from students across the U.S. in 2000, 2005, and 2010 and saw a modest but steady increase in cyberbullying between 2000 and 2010 (from 6% to 11%). Their numbers are lower than ours because of the different way they conducted their research, but since they have looked at cyberbullying the same way in three different national studies we can use the results to estimate that cyberbullying in general seems to be increasing.
So where does this leave us? Professor Olweus is right that cyberbullying isn’t some new phenomenon that is completely distinct from the bullying that has been perpetrated by and toward teens for generations. But it is occurring at levels that demand our attention and initial evidence suggests that it is increasing. We know that most cyberbullying is connected to offline relationships and that most teens who cyberbully also bully at school. Cyberbullying is neither an epidemic nor a rarity. But is it something that everyone has a responsibility to work toward ending. What are you going to do?
Sameer and I wrote a paper that was recently published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence that examines the influence of peers, parents, and educators on the cyberbullying behaviors of middle and high school students. It has long been known that adolescent behaviors (both positive and negative) are largely influenced by significant others. Our paper basically re-affirms that finding as it relates to cyberbullying.
Specifically, we found that “…students who reported that many of their friends had bullied others (at school, using a computer, and using a cell phone) were significantly more likely to have also reported that they too had cyberbullied others.” At the same time, we also found that those “who reported that a sanction was likely from their parents or school were significantly less likely to report involvement.” The importance of peers was particularly prominent. Students who reported that “most” or “all” of their friends had bullied others in the previous 6 months were nearly 17 times more likely themselves to bully others, compared to those who said that none or only a few of their friends were bullies. But it is also noteworthy that students who felt that a sanction was likely from parents or teachers were significantly less likely to report that they had cyberbullied others.
Here is the abstract:
Cyberbullying is a problem affecting a meaningful proportion of youth as they embrace online communication and interaction. Research has identified a number of real-world negative ramifications for both the targets and those who bully. During adolescence, many behavioral choices are influenced and conditioned by the role of major socializing agents, including friends, family, and adults at school. The purpose of this study was to determine the extent to which peers, parents, and educators influence the cyberbullying behaviors of adolescents. To explore this question, data were analyzed from a random sample of approximately 4,400 sixth through twelfth grade students (49 % female; 63 % nonwhite) from thirty-three schools in one large school district in the southern United States. Results indicate that cyberbullying offending is associated with perceptions of peers behaving similarly, and the likelihood of sanction by adults. Specifically, youth who believed that many of their friends were involved in bullying and cyberbullying were themselves more likely to report cyberbullying behaviors. At the same time, respondents who believed that the adults in their life would punish them for cyberbullying were less likely to participate. Implications for schools and families are discussed with the goal of mitigating this behavior and its negative outcomes among adolescent populations.
The full paper is available here. We also have a brief fact sheet that summarizes the findings which is available here.
Technology has given students immeasurable opportunities to communicate with friends and collaborate on schoolwork. Of course it also allows those with ill-intent to use high-tech avenues as mediums to be mean. One question that we have been exploring is the extent to which technology has created a whole new class of bullies. Think about it: if I want to be cruel to someone else, but perhaps don’t feel comfortable or confident to do so at school, I may turn to the Internet. This may be because I am extremely comfortable with various social media environments, or because I need time to craft my ingenious hateful statement or brilliant plan to humiliate someone else, or because I would get beat up if I tried to do it in person, or because I would get caught easier at school.
I was recently looking at our 2010 data from over 4,400 middle and high school students who we randomly selected from one large school district to explore this question. What I found was that there were very few students who had reported that they cyberbullied others but who had not bullied others at school. Specifically, 34% of the sample had bullied at school only, 10% had bullied at school and online, but just 1.1% had bullied online only. So most of those who are doing the bullying online are also doing the bullying at school (90% of the cyberbullies are also school bullies).
Traditional and Cyberbullying (N=4,441)
Not a bully – 54.6%
Bully at school only – 34.4%
Bully online only – 1.1%
Bully at school and online – 9.9%
So what does this mean for how we should respond to cyberbullying? First, some educators have argued that if the behavior does not happen at school, there is nothing that they can do. While this perspective is incorrect, as we have pointed out on this blog before, the research shows is there is a high likelihood that a student who is involved in cyberbullying is also involved in bullying at school. Either way, educators should be involved in appropriately and reasonably responding to all bullying, no matter where it happens, if those behaviors inhibit the ability of students to learn and feel safe at school.
Second, the causes of bullying are likely similar irrespective of the environment in which the bullying takes place. That is, whatever causes a student to bully online will undoubtedly also cause them to bully wherever they are. As much as technology has made it easier to connect with others at any time and from just about any place, the trigger or primary opportunity for bullying still appears to come at school. It will be interesting to see if this might change over time. Most people we speak to often assume that cyberbullying is occurring with more frequency than traditional schoolyard bullying. Maybe that is because most of what we hear about in the news are cases of cyberbullying or because technology is so much more widespread among teens than ever before. The reality, however, is that most bullying is still happening at school.
In our sample, 7.5% of students had been cyberbullied compared to 25.8% who had been bullied at school (in the previous 30 days). And we are not the only researchers to have observed this. For example, the School Crime Supplement of the National Crime Victimization Survey added a handful of cyberbullying questions to their survey in 2009 and those data (the most recent available) showed that 28% of students reported being bullied at school while 6% reported being bullied “by electronic means anywhere.” As much as the conventional wisdom would suggest that cyberbullying is occurring with greater frequency than schoolyard bullying, it just isn’t (see also Bullying in a Networked Era: A Literature Review).
These findings do raise some interesting follow-up questions for additional study. For example, are there certain characteristics that are unique to the group of students who specialize in only one form of bullying? Are interventions that focus on reducing bullying generally also effective at reducing cyberbullying (or vice versa)? Are there certain features of schools (or web environments) that make them more or less inviting of different types of bullying? There is always so much more research to do…and we will keep working to do it!
By now, most people are familiar with the Amanda Todd tragedy. The 15-year old from British Columbia, Canada posted a cry-for-help video on YouTube using note cards to detail the torment she endured from classmates and strangers in the wake of a revealing (topless) video chat photo being released to her Facebook friends and others by an extorting stranger. She got depressed and anxious and experimented with drugs and alcohol. She cut herself and had at least two previous attempts at suicide. People commented on her Facebook page that she should try harder to kill herself: “I hope she dies this time and isn’t so stupid.” Unfortunately, on October 10th, 2012, she did.
Many students have written out note cards and taken to YouTube to tell their story (Alye, Jessica, Kegan, Kate, and perhaps most famously, Jonah). These are often referred to as “If You Really Knew Me” or “secrets” videos and feature young people exposing their souls in a very public, but still somewhat private way. I mean, the reality is that most of these videos are viewed only a handful of times and very few have garnered as much attention as Amanda Todd’s has. My fear is that others who are struggling with the common (and not-so-common) trials that accompany the teenage years will feel that suicide is the only way to bring full attention to their struggles.
My heart breaks when I read story after story of teens who felt suicide was the only answer to their situation. Just a few days ago a 15-year old Staten Island, New York girl jumped into the path of an oncoming train (to her death) after apparently being “tortured” by other students. Earlier in the week she tweeted: “I can’t. I’m done. I give up.” Less than a month ago it was a 16-year old East Hampton, New York student who ended his life after being bullied, reportedly due to his sexual orientation. There are just too many of these horrendous stories to keep up with.
Research has shown that experience with bullying (whether as a target or bully) is linked to heightened risk for suicide. A recent review of 41 incidents that were reported in the media where cyberbullying appeared to be the cause of a teen’s suicide showed that experience with bullying was just one of many factors that likely led to the teen’s death. This finding is consistent with what we have found in our work over the years. In our paper published in 2010, we found a small, but statistically significant increase in risk for suicidal thoughts and attempts among students who were bullied or cyberbullied (and among those who did the bullying or cyberbullying). But the experience with bullying (in whatever form) explained only a small amount of the variation in suicidal behaviors. That is, there are other factors that we weren’t able to account for in that study that were also related to suicide. There are, to be sure, many challenges that teens are confronting on a day-to-day basis, and often these pile up to the point where some simply cannot take them any longer. In our paper, we concluded that “it is unlikely that experience with cyberbullying by itself leads to youth suicide. Rather, it tends to exacerbate instability and hopelessness in the minds of adolescents already struggling with stressful life circumstances.”
If you or someone you know is in such a place, please get help. Talk to an adult you can trust. Please. If you are the adult, connect with each of the students, children, or other young people in your life in a way that enables them to come to you in times of crisis. You could be their savior. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for emergency help. If only Amanda, or someone who cared about her, would have done the same.
Our latest book School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Class at a Time argues that one promising way to prevent cyberbullying and other problematic online behaviors from occurring is to develop a positive climate at school where students feel safe and cared about. There is ample evidence to affirm the power of a positive climate in preventing a host of problems at school, including student and teacher victimization, delinquency, and disorder. We wondered if a positive climate at school could also serve as a protective factor in reducing involvement in cyberbullying, sexting, and other high-tech misbehaviors that largely occur away from school.
As a preliminary test of this hypothesis, we analyzed data from a random sample of approximately 4,400 middle and high school students from 33 schools in a large school district in the United States. We asked students to tell us their thoughts about the quality of the climate at their school and also asked them to report their experiences with cyberbullying. With regard to the quality of the climate, we specifically asked students to tell us the extent to which they agreed with the following statements:
- I feel safe at my school.
- I feel that teachers at my school care about me.
- I feel that teachers at my school really try to help me succeed.
- I feel that students at my school trust and respect the teachers.
- I feel that teachers at my school are fair to all students.
- I feel that teachers at my school take bullying very seriously.
Students responded to each of these questions using a 4-point scale ranging from strongly disagree (0) to strongly agree (3). Scores from the six questions were averaged for each student, and each school was given an average score based on responses from a random sample of students in that school. School climate scores ranged from 1.41 to 2.16, and the three groups were created by looking at natural breaks, which placed roughly one-third of the schools in each group. Average climate scores for each group were low (1.55), medium (1.71), and high (1.90).
For cyberbullying, we used our standard measure which first defined cyberbullying as “when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through email or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.” We then asked about nine different types of cyberbullying behaviors (including pictures, messaging, comments, etc.). We calculated the percentage of students who had been cyberbullied or who had cyberbullied others, by school, and aggregated the schools across the three different groups of school climate (low, medium, and high). As expected, we saw a clear relationship between the quality of the climate and the proportion of students who had experienced cyberbullying.
As you can see from Table 1 (click here for a larger version of the chart), the better the quality of the climate, the fewer number of students reported experiencing (either as a victim or as a bully) cyberbullying. The students from higher climate schools also reported fewer sexting incidents. Our book goes into a lot more detail about the research and results, and provides numerous practical examples of ways to improve one’s school climate, so please check it out for more information.
It is important once again to acknowledge the preliminary nature of this research. We were only able to include 33 schools from one school district, and we want to encourage others to replicate this work with larger and more diverse samples. Ideally, scores of schools from around the U.S. (and abroad!) would be sampled and analyzed to obtain a more comprehensive picture of the nature of the relationship between climate and online behaviors. And we would be happy to assist others in these efforts. If you have any other questions about this or any of our other research, don’t hesitate to contact us.