Nearly three in four teenagers say they were bullied online at least once during a recent 12-month period, and only one in 10 reported such cyber-bullying to parents or other adults, according to a new study by UCLA psychologists.
Of those who were bullied online, 85 percent also have been bullied at school, the psychologists found. The probability of getting bullied online was substantially higher for those who have been the victims of school bullying.
"Bullying affects millions of students and is not limited to school grounds," said lead study author Jaana Juvonen, a professor of psychology and chair of UCLA's developmental psychology program. "Bullying on the Internet looks similar to what kids do face-to-face in school. The Internet is not functioning as a separate environment but is connected with the social lives of kids in school. Our findings suggest that especially among heavy users of the Internet, cyber-bullying is a common experience, and the forms of online and in-school bullying are more alike than different."
The research is based on an anonymous Web-based survey of 1,454 participants between the ages of 12 and 17, who were recruited through a nationally popular teen website from August through October 2005. The psychologists' findings appear in the September issue of the Journal of School Health.
Forty-one percent of the teenagers surveyed reported between one and three online bullying incidents over the course of a year, 13 percent reported four to six incidents and 19 percent reported seven or more incidents, Juvonen said.
Many teenagers do not realize how many of their peers are being bullied online and think cyber-bullying happens much more to them than to others, she said.
"When kids start thinking, 'It's just happening to me,' they likely blame themselves, and once they do that, it increases their risk of depression," Juvonen said. "Kids don't know how common cyber-bullying is, even among their best friends. Cyber-bulling is not a plight of a few problematic children but a shared experience."
Why do so few teenagers tell their parents about being bullied online?
The most common reason for not telling an adult, cited by half the bullied participants, was that teens believe they "need to learn to deal with it." In addition, 31 percent reported that they do not tell because they are concerned their parents might restrict their Internet access. This concern was especially common among girls between the ages of 12 and 14, with 46 percent fearing restrictions, compared with 27 percent of boys in the same age group. One-third of 12-to-14-year-olds reported that they didn't tell an adult out of fear that they could get into trouble with their parents.
Many parents have little understanding of their children's Internet use.
"Many parents do not understand how vital the Internet is to their social lives," Juvonen said. "Parents can take detrimental action with good intentions, such as trying to protect their children by not letting them use the Internet at all. That is not likely to help parent-teen relationships or the social lives of their children."
Most children are using the Internet mainly to connect with friends, not to meet new people, previous research has shown.
"Kids are mainly using the Internet to maintain relationships like we used to in the old days when we called a friend or walked to someone's house," Juvonen said. "It's a way for kids to maintain connections with their friends."
Seventy-three percent of the participants who reported being cyber-bullied said they knew, or were pretty sure they knew, who was doing the bullying.
"This finding is counter to the prevalent myth that cyber-bullying is anonymous," Juvonen said.
The research does not support the assumption that the Internet is dramatically changing the nature of bullying.
Of those participants who experienced bullying, 51 percent said the bullying was done by schoolmates, 43 percent said they were bullied by someone they knew only online and 20 percent said they were bullied by someone they knew, but who was not from school.
The most prevalent forms of bullying online and in school involved name-calling or insults. Password theft was the next most common cyber-bullying tactic. Bullying also includes threats, sending embarrassing pictures, sharing private information without permission and spreading nasty rumors.
Both in-school and online bullying experiences were independently associated with increased social anxiety, said UCLA psychology research fellow Elisheva Gross, co-author of the study and co-president of Barnraising Inc., a new media and art education and youth-development company.
Electronic communication devices are not the cause of problem behavior among teenagers but are tools that can be used to interact with peers in both antisocial and healthy ways, Juvonen said.
Parents and other adults may overestimate the risk of bullying online and downplay the risk of bullying in school, said Juvonen, who recommends that schools try to reduce both. Schools are getting better at taking action to reduce bullying — including teaching students strategies for coping with and responding to bullying — and some of them address cyber-bullying as well, she said.
"There is no reason why cyber-bullying should be 'beyond' the school's responsibility to address," Juvonen said. "Rather, it seems that schools need to enforce intolerance of any intimidation among students, regardless of whether it takes place on or beyond the school grounds."
Many children are using the Internet in the privacy of their bedrooms, which Juvonen does not consider a good idea, because it makes it harder for parents to monitor.
While name-calling and spreading rumors may look rather benign, children often find them hurtful, Juvonen and Gross said.
In research from 2005 by Juvonen and Adrienne Nishina, an assistant professor of human development at the University of California, Davis, nearly half the sixth graders at two Los Angeles-area public schools said they were bullied by classmates during a five-day period.
"Bullying is a problem that large numbers of kids confront on a daily basis at school; it's not just an issue for the few unfortunate ones," Juvonen said.
The earlier research by Juvonen and Nishina showed that children are emotionally affected on the days they get picked on. The students who were beat up and those who were called names were equally bothered.
"Students reported feeling humiliated, anxious or disliking school on days when they reported incidents, which shows there is no such thing as 'harmless' name-calling or an 'innocent' punch," Juvonen said.
Bullying occurs across ethnic groups and income brackets, said Gross, who has received funding from the UCLA Children's Digital Media Center.
In another 2005 study, Nishina and Juvonen reported that middle school students who are bullied in school are likely to feel depressed, lonely and miserable, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to further bullying incidents. Harassment at school interferes with the ability to learn and makes many students want to withdraw, Juvonen said.
Children who are embarrassed or humiliated about being bullied in school are unlikely to discuss it with their parents or teacher, Juvonen and Nishina found. Instead, they are more likely to suffer in silence and dislike school.
Juvonen advises parents to talk with their children about bullying before it ever happens, pay attention to changes in their children's behavior and take their concerns seriously.
Students who get bullied often have headaches, colds and other physical illnesses, as well as psychological problems.
Of the 1,454 participants in the recent survey, 75 percent were female, 66 percent were Caucasian, 12 percent were African American, 9 percent were Latino/Hispanic and 5 percent were Asian American. All 50 states were represented.
- Juvonen et al. Extending the School Grounds?-Bullying Experiences in Cyberspace. Journal of School Health, 2008; 78 (9): 496 DOI: 10.1111/j.1746-1561.2008.00335.x
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