Cyberbullying is far less prevalent than offline bullying, but still needs addressing

An academic survey of more than 120,000 English 15-year-olds finds cyber-bullying to be far less common than “traditional” face-to-face bullying. We interviewed the authors about their findings.

Schools and parents play an important role in educating children about cyberbullying. Credit: Pasco County Schools (Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0).

Bullying is a major public health problem, with systematic reviews supporting an association between adolescent bullying and poor mental wellbeing outcomes. In their Lancet article “Cyberbullying and adolescent well-being in England: a population-based cross sectional study”, Andrew Przybylski (Oxford Internet Institute) and Lucy Bowes (Oxford’s Dept of Experimental Psychology) report the largest study to date on the prevalence of traditional and cyberbullying, based on a nationally representative sample of 120,115 adolescents in England.

While nearly a third of the adolescent respondents reported experiencing significant bullying in the past few months, cyberbullying was much less common, with around five percent of respondents reporting recent significant experiences. Both traditional and cyberbullying were independently associated with lower mental well-being, but only the relation between traditional bullying and well-being was robust. This supports the view that cyberbullying is unlikely to provide a source for new victims, but rather presents an avenue for further victimisation of those already suffering from traditional forms of bullying.

This stands in stark contrast to media reports and the popular perception that young people are now more likely to be victims of cyberbullying than traditional forms. The results also suggest that interventions to address cyberbullying will only be effective if they also consider the dynamics of traditional forms of bullying, supporting the urgent need for evidence-based interventions that target *both* forms of bullying in adolescence.

That said, as social media and Internet connectivity become an increasingly intrinsic part of modern childhood, initiatives fostering resilience in online and every day contexts will be required.

We caught up with Andy and Lucy to discuss their findings:

Ed.: You say that given “the rise in the use of mobile and online technologies among young people, an up to date estimation of the current prevalence of cyberbullying in the UK is needed.” Having undertaken that — what are your initial thoughts on the results?

Andy: I think a really compelling thing we learned in this project is that researchers and policymakers have to think very carefully about what constitutes a meaningful degree of bullying or cyberbullying. Many of the studies and reports we reviewed were really loose on details here while a smaller core of work was precise and informative. When we started our study it was difficult to sort through the noise but we settled on a solid standard — at least two or three experiences of bullying in the past month — to base our prevalence numbers and statistical models on.

Lucy: One of the issues here is that studies often use different measures, so it is hard to compare like for like, but in general our study supports other recent studies indicating that relatively few adolescents report being cyberbullied only — one study by Dieter Wolke and colleagues that collected between 2014–2015 found that whilst 29% of school students reported being bullied, only 1% of 11–16 year olds reported only cyberbullying. Whilst that study was only in a handful of schools in one part of England, the findings are strikingly similar to our own. In general then it seems that rates of cyberbullying are not increasing dramatically; though it is concerning that prevalence rates of both forms of bullying — particularly traditional bullying — have remained unacceptably high.

Ed.: Is there a policy distinction drawn between “bullying” (i.e. young people) and “harassment” (i.e. the rest of us, including in the workplace) — and also between “bullying” and “cyber-bullying”? These are all basically the same thing, aren’t they — why distinguish?

Lucy: I think this is a good point; people do refer to ‘bullying’ in the workplace as well. Bullying, at its core, is defined as intentional, repeated aggression targeted against a person who is less able to defend him or herself — for example, a younger or more vulnerable person. Cyberbullying has the additional definition of occurring only in an online format — but I agree that this is the same action or behaviour, just taking place in a different context. Whilst in practice bullying and harassment have very similar meanings and may be used interchangeably, harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010, whilst bullying actually isn’t a legal term at all. However certain acts of bullying could be considered harassment and therefore be prosecuted. I think this really just reflects the fact that we often ‘carve up’ human behaviour and experience according to our different policies, practices and research fields — when in reality they are not so distinct.

Ed.: I suppose online bullying of young people might be more difficult to deal with, given it can occur under the radar, and in social spaces that might not easily admit adults (though conversely, leave actual evidence, if reported..). Why do you think there’s a moral panic about cyberbullying — is it just newspapers selling copy, or does it say something interesting about the Internet as a medium — a space that’s both very open and very closed? And does any of this hysteria affect actual policy?

Andy: I think our concern arises from the uncertainty and unfamiliarity people have about the possibilities the Internet provides. Because it is full of potential — for good and ill — and is always changing, wild claims about it capture our imagination and fears. That said, the panic absolutely does affect policy and parenting discussions in the UK. Statistics and figures coming from pressure groups and well-meaning charities do put the prevalence of cyberbullying at terrifying, and unrealistically high, levels. This certainly has affected the way parents see things. Policy makers tend to seize on the worse case scenario and interpret things through this lens. Unfortunately this can be a distraction when there are known health and behavioural challenges facing young people.

Lucy: For me, I think we do tend to panic and highlight the negative impacts of the online world — often at the expense of the many positive impacts. That said, there was — and remains — a worry that cyberbullying could have the potential to be more widespread, and to be more difficult to resolve. The perpetrator’s identity may be unknown, may follow the child home from school, and may be persistent — in that it may be difficult to remove hurtful comments or photos from the Internet. It is reassuring that our findings, as well as others’, suggest that cyberbullying may not be associated with as great an impact on well-being as people have suggested.

Ed.: Obviously something as deeply complex and social as bullying requires a complex, multivalent response: but (that said), do you think there are any low-hanging interventions that might help address online bullying, like age verification, reporting tools, more information in online spaces about available help, more discussion of it as a problem (etc.)?

Andy: No easy ones. Understanding that cyber- and traditional bullying aren’t dissimilar, parental engagement and keeping lines of communication open are key. This means parents should learn about the technology their young people are using, and that kids should know they’re safe disclosing when something scary or distressing eventually happens.

Lucy: Bullying is certainly complex; school-based interventions that have been successful in reducing more traditional forms of bullying have tended to involve those students who are not directly involved but who act as ‘bystanders’ — encouraging them to take a more active stance against bullying rather than remaining silent and implicitly suggesting that it is acceptable. There are online equivalents being developed, and greater education that discourages people (both children and adults) from sharing negative images or words, or encourages them to actively ‘dislike’ such negative posts show promise. I also think it’s important that targeted advice and support for those directly affected is provided.

Ed.: Who’s seen as the primary body responsible for dealing with bullying online: is it schools? NGOs? Or the platform owners who actually (if not-intentionally) host this abuse? And does this topic bump up against wider current concerns about (e.g.) the moral responsibilities of social media companies?

Andy: There is no single body that takes responsibility for this for young people. Some charities and government agencies, like the Child Exploitation and Online Protection command (CEOP) are doing great work. They provide a forum for information for parents and professionals for kids that is stratified by age, and easy-to-complete forms that young people or carers can use to get help. Most industry-based solutions require users to report and flag offensive content and they’re pretty far behind the ball on this because we don’t know what works and what doesn’t. At present cyberbullying consultants occupy the space and the services they provide are of dubious empirical value. If industry and the government want to improve things on this front they need to make direct investments in supporting robust, open, basic scientific research into cyberbulling and trials of promising intervention approaches.

Lucy: There was an interesting discussion by the NSPCC about this recently, and it seems that people are very mixed in their opinions — some would also say parents play an important role, as well as Government. I think this reflects the fact that cyberbullying is a complex social issue. It is important that social media companies are aware, and work with government, NGOs and young people to safeguard against harm (as many are doing), but equally schools and parents play an important role in educating children about cyberbullying — how to stay safe, how to play an active role in reducing cyberbullying, and who to turn to if children are experiencing cyberbullying.

Ed.: You mention various limitations to the study; what further evidence do you think we need, in order to more completely understand this issue, and support good interventions?

Lucy: I think we need to know more about how to support children directly affected by bullying, and more work is needed in developing effective interventions for cyberbullying. There are some very good school-based interventions with a strong evidence base to suggest that they reduce the prevalence of at least traditional forms of bullying, but they are not being widely implemented in the UK, and this is a missed opportunity.

Andy: I agree — a focus on flashy cyberbullying headlines presents the real risk of distracting us from developing and implementing evidence-based interventions. The Internet cannot be turned off and there are no simple solutions.

Ed.: You say the UK is ranked 20th of 27 EU countries on the mental well-being index, and also note the link between well-being and productivity. Do you think there’s enough discussion and effort being put into well-being, generally? And is there even a general public understanding of what “well-being” encompasses?

Lucy: I think the public understanding of well-being is probably pretty close to the research definition — people have a good sense that this involves more than not having psychological difficulty for example, and that it refers to friendships, relationships, and doing well; one’s overall quality of life. Both research and policy is placing more of an emphasis on well-being — in part because large international studies have suggested that the UK may score particularly poorly on measures of well-being. This is very important if we are going to raise standards and improve people’s quality of life.


Read the full article: Andrew Przybylski and Lucy Bowes (2017) Cyberbullying and adolescent well-being in England: a population-based cross sectional study. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.

Andrew Przybylski is an experimental psychologist based at the Oxford Internet Institute. His research focuses on applying motivational theory to understand the universal aspects of video games and social media that draw people in, the role of game structure and content on human aggression, and the factors that lead to successful versus unsuccessful self-regulation of gaming contexts and social media use. @ShuhBillSkee

Lucy Bowes is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology. Her research focuses on the impact of early life stress on psychological and behavioural development, integrating social epidemiology, developmental psychology and behavioural genetics to understand the complex genetic and environmental influences that promote resilience to victimization and early life stress. @DrLucyBowes

Andy Przybylski and Lucy Bowes were talking to the Oxford Internet Institute’s Managing Editor, David Sutcliffe.

[Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not necessarily the position of the Oxford Internet Institute or the University of Oxford.]