Skip to main content

The School Bully Has Learned to Surf

  • Author:
  • Updated:

The suicide of a Missouri teenager after online bullying by the parent of a former friend has set off a spate of adult hand-wringing and a few specific laws hoping to prevent the practice.

Much like the fear of Internet predators trolling for our youth, the concerns seem based more on lurid anecdote than serious study.

New research from two University of California, Los Angeles psychologists, Jaana Juvonen and Elisheva F. Gross, attempts to put some numbers on the frequency of bullying beyond campus. They asked 1,454 students, ranging in age from 12 to 17 years old, from public and private schools (and even a few homeschools) if they'd been bullied online. Some 72 percent of the kids replied that, yes, in the past year they'd encountered an "online mean thing" — a number that was 5 to 8 percentage points lower than actual schoolyard bullying figures the same kids reported.

The researchers defined cyberbullying as the insults or threats delivered via the Internet or some other digital communication device. Such "mean things" — the wording on the survey — included name-calling, sending embarrassing or private pictures or information without permission or password theft.

View The Arava Institute/Center for Sustainable Agriculture in a larger map

Of course, the anonymity of the Internet probably lies behind some of the coarse exchanges among (alleged) adults on the messages below news stories and blog entries, and the cloak provided by anonymity certainly made the Missouri incident possible. But among the teen respondents, 73 percent said they were totally or pretty sure they knew who their tormentors were — half from someone they knew at school and 43 percent from someone they knew the Internet only (multiple responses were possible).

"Thus," the authors write in the August issue of the Journal of School Health, "the Internet does not seem to protect perpetrators' identity — or, at least, the victims of cyberbullying think they know who is harassing them."

So what's the response to cyberbullying, fight or flight?

Were victims of school-based bullying especially likely to retaliate online? Among the 48 percent of school-based victims who reported retaliating against their presumed aggressor(s), the most likely site for retaliation was school (60 percent), not cyberspace (12 percent); 28 percent of school-based victims reported retaliating both in school and online.

And nobody runs off to tattle. Some 90 percent of respondents said they did not tell adults about the bully, half because they figured they needed to learn how to deal with it. In a finding the authors found disturbing, a touch less than a third didn't tell adults essentially because they feared mom would keep them off the Internet if she found out. The latter was especially common among younger teen girls.

The authors close with a call for both adult common sense and extra vigilance — not by parents but by schools:

Another issue concerns whether parents and other adults may both overestimate the risk of bullying online and downplay the risk of bullying in school. Moreover, parents as well as school personnel may fail to see the connection between bullying in school and in cyberspace. The links and similarities between school-based and online bullying documented in this study need to be recognized. There is no reason why cyberbullying should be ‘‘beyond'' the school's responsibility to address. 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.