Expert Commentary

Bullying in a networked era: Research views on scope and frequency of cyberbullying

2012 and 2013 reports from Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the University of New Hampshire examine and consolidate the research findings of recent studies.

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The suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi in September 2010 brought increased national attention to the issues of cyber-bullying and bias-based bullying. A number of states and localities have subsequently sought to develop legislation to address what is seen as a growing problem. But societal problems with bullying, of course, continue, and new reports seem to emerge in the media on a weekly basis. For example, in September 2013 a 12-year-old Florida girl, Rebecca Ann Sedwick, is alleged to have committed suicide because of persistent harassment in social media, according to law enforcement officials. The world of mobile apps has made this problem only more complicated, as the New York Times has reported.

Although such reports can seem terrifying in their particulars — and feed into a pervasive sense that the Internet is a threatening place for youth — it is useful to keep in mind the more general research findings about the true scope, scale and frequency of this problem, and the Web’s precise role in enabling it.

A 2013 study sheds more light on aspects of this phenomenon. In “Cyber Bullying and Physical Bullying in Adolescent Suicide: The Role of Violent Behavior and Substance Use,” published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, researchers Brett J. Litwiller of the University of Oklahoma and Amy M. Brausch of Western Kentucky University examine a sample of nearly 4,700 high school students. It is one of the first studies to examine empirically why there is a connection between bullying and suicide, among other negative behaviors. The findings suggest that “both types of bullying, cyber and physical, positively predicted suicidal behavior, substance use, violent behavior, and unsafe sexual behavior.” In terms of their findings specifically for online behavior, Litwiller and Brausch note:

Cyber bullying had a similar sized effect on suicidal behavior, substance use, violent behavior, and unsafe sexual behavior as physical bullying. This finding provides further evidence of the potential consequences of cyber bullying. In contrast to physical bullying, cyber bullying has been found to be more difficult to avoid, anonymous, and likely to coincide with other forms of bullying…. Although not specifically examined in this study, victims of cyber bullying may more be likely to experience negative psychological states, thus contributing to feelings of thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness. If cyber bullying activates feeling like one does not belong or is a burden to others, an adolescent’s risk of suicidal behavior may increase, especially if adolescents are also engaging in risk behaviors that may habituate them to pain and fear of death.

Another 2013 study, “Characteristics of College Cyberbullies,” published in Computers in Human Behavior, provides more empirical evidence about the phenomenon among slightly older young persons. The authors, Allison M. Schenk, William J. Fremouw and Colleen M. Keelan of West Virginia University, examined the personality traits of 60 persons who self-reported having participated at least four times in cyberbullying someone else (these profiles were drawn from a survey of more than 800 students.) There were 36 females and 24 males among the cyberbullies. The survey also recorded the experiences of 19 victims. The authors conclude:

Cyberbullies and cyberbully/victims scored higher than control participants on general distress, interpersonal sensitivity, depression, hostility, phobic anxiety, paranoia, and psychotic symptoms. Although it is not known how these symptoms directly relate to cyberbullying, these significant differences indicate a disparity in psychological functioning between those individuals involved in cyberbullying their uninvolved peers. This elevated level of psychological impairment for cyberbullies and cyberbully/victims was also reflected in an increase of suicidal thoughts and tendencies overall than control participants. Cyberbully/victims also were more likely than pure cyberbullies and controls to have told someone they were thinking about committing suicide.

A 2012 report from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, “Bullying in a Networked Era: A Literature Review,” examines and consolidates the findings of other studies published between 2008 and 2012. The data focus on American youth in middle and high school. The authors — Nathaniel Levy, Sandra Cortesi, Urs Gasser,  Edward Crowley, Meredith Beaton, June Casey and Caroline Nolan — define bullying as having three primary characteristics: It is intentional, involves a power imbalance between aggressor(s) and victim, and is repetitive.

The report highlights the following findings:

  • “Youth play a variety of roles in the bullying dynamic. Bullying involvement can be characterized by four basic roles: (a) bully, (b) victim, (c) bully-victim (actors who both bully and are victimized by others) and (d) bystander. The role of the bully-victim shows that those of bullies and victims are not always clear-cut. Certain types of bullying, such as ‘relational’ aggression (both online and offline), are more likely to involve bully-victims. Certain types of youth are more likely to be victimized, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth and youth with disabilities.”
  • “In one national study of 2,400 6-17 year olds, between 34-42% of youths were bullied frequently in the past year…. Based on nationally representative 2001 data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health, which surveyed 15,686 students in the 6th to 10th grades, roughly 33% of students were involved in bullying as victims, bullies or both…. Based on 2005-2006 data from the School Survey on Crime and Safety, the U.S. Department of Education found that nearly 25% of public schools principals reported bullying to be a daily or weekly occurrence.”
  • “The anonymity of the bully is not as prevalent online as some research has suggested. One anonymous survey of over 1,400 teens ages 12-17 showed that 73% of participants who were victims of cyberbullying knew the identity of their bully (within this group, 43% from the Internet and 71% from offline — please note that participants were allowed to indicate multiple answers to the survey questions)…. A nationally representative study of over 1,000 teens ages 12-17 notes a lower percentage — 54% of online victims who participated knew their bully’s identity.”
  • “Youth bullied offline for their sexual orientation or gender identity face a greater likelihood of more severe consequences than other victims. Although fewer studies have compared bias based bullying or harassment of multiple varieties, initial comparisons suggest that experiencing any kind of bias-based victimization can have a greater negative impact than other forms of bullying.” This includes substance abuse, psychological distress, negative views of their school environment, missing school and having lower grades.
  • “A national survey of 5,621 youth ages 12-18 found that 64% of all respondents who experienced offline bullying in various forms did not report it to teachers or school officials.”
  • “School policies can guide prevention and intervention efforts by establishing a framework for action and communicating this framework, and the school’s commitment to it, to the broader community…. ‘Zero tolerance’ and other highly punitive disciplinary approaches have been shown not to work; a balance of consistent disciplinary action and support for students has been more effective.”
  • “A recent study of over 7,300 students in the 9th grade and 2,900 teachers randomly selected from 290 high schools found that students who seek help for being bullied are less likely to be bullied again.”
  • One study shows that “teachers were also more likely to respond to an incident — either when informed of or observing one — when they felt prepared to respond, indicating a role for training programs to provide such preparation.”
  • “As of January 2012, 10 states required (and one encouraged) schools or school districts to provide school staff with professional development or training to better understand the relevant school district’s bullying policy, many of which cover reporting and response processes. 16 states required and six encouraged that schools or school districts provide staff with professional development or training in bullying prevention.”
  • “The climate, or culture, of a school can have an impact on the prevalence of bullying and students’ comfort levels — and likelihood — of reporting acts of bullying to adults in school. Students’ feelings of being connected to and supported by school are prime characteristics of positive school climate, which are associated with lower levels of bullying. Positive relationships with peers and adults within school, and a sense of being treated fairly by teachers, are in turn important aspects of a connected and supportive school climate.”

The authors conclude by noting that online activity can also “produce positive experiences, including exposure to diverse perspectives, which is helpful for positive social and intellectual growth.”  They recommend that “when cultivating a school, home, or community environment, educators, parents, and other adults can learn of ways to leverage or encourage the development of youths’ positive social interactions online.”

A 2013 report from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, “Trends in Bullying and Peer Victimization,” finds that bullying rates have declined markedly since the early 1990s.  But the author cautions that bullying is still a major problem among American youth: “[These findings should] not be interpreted as the problem having been solved. First, the rates are still incredibly high. For example, more than one in 10 high school students said they were in a physical fight on school property in the last year. We would not tolerate a level of work place danger that was so high, nor should we.”

Tags: youth, safety, technology, bullying

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