Primary Sources: Cyber-Bullying Happens Less Often Than In-Person Bullying

A young woman holds a no bullying sign

Bullying Prevalence Across Contexts: A Meta-analysis Measuring Cyber and Traditional Bullying,” Kathryn L. Modecki, Jeannie Minchin, Allen G. Harbaugh, Nancy Guerra, and Kevin C. Reunions. The Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 55, Issue 5 (November 2014).

What it’s about: We hear a lot these days about bullying in digital spaces. But is "cyber-bullying," or harmful behaviors that occur online or via mobile devices, now more prevalent than traditional, or offline, bullying? To find out, the authors of this study conducted a thorough literature review, analyzing 80 studies with combined sample sizes of over 300,000 young people.

Why read it: Bullying is more than a nuisance. It affects young people's health and well-being in many ways. In particular, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are at particular risk of bullying and its harmful outcomes, such as suicide and depression. Many studies have examined both cyber and traditional bullying, with mixed results, and scholars lack a clear picture of the extent of the bullying, in whatever form. This study seeks to clarify that picture, and, to the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study to take stock of the literature comparing the prevalence of cyber- and traditional bullying.

Biggest takeaways from the research: The researchers found that youth were twice as likely to bully or be bullied in traditional settings, compared to digital spaces. Across the 80 studies the researchers looked at, an average of 35 percent of youth had been bullied in person. An average of 15 percent of youth had been bullied online or via mobile devices. This pattern was consistent within and across studies, the authors say, with most studies reporting higher offline than online rates. 

However, the researchers also found that youth who experienced bullying in one form were very likely to experience it in the other form. This suggests, the authors say, that both kinds of bullying may simply be different methods of enacting similar behavior (being mean to others). The form, they say, may be less important than the conduct itself.

The researchers say that while it is important to acknowledge the existence of cyber-bullying and respond accordingly, youth workers and program planners should not necessarily shift attention away from preventing bullying in person. Efforts to prevent bullying in all its forms, they say, may be best served by focusing on the behavior of bullying and working to reduce harmful conduct wherever it occurs. For example, the authors write, interventions could teach youth to treat each other with respect at all times and in all venues.

Additional references: Look for more articles on bullying and cyber bullying in NCFY’s research library.

You might also want to read our summary of the study “Differentiating Youth Who Are Bullied From Other Victims of Peer-Aggression: The Importance of Differential Power and Repetition.”

And learn more about resources to prevent bullying in “Teens Speak Out on Cyberbullying,” “Anti-Bullying Resources” and “Staying Safe Online.”

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

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