As adolescents spend more and more of their time online (Anderson & Jiang, 2018), parents, teachers, and school officials have become increasingly concerned about cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is a subtype of bullying that occurs over digital devices (Stopbullying.gov, 2019a; Olweus & Limber, 2018). All forms of bullying are characterized by aggressive behavior in the context of a real or perceived power imbalance that is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated (Stopbullying.gov, 2019b).
Cyberbullying makes up only a small percentage of total bullying. About one-fifth (19-20 percent) of secondary school students reported being bullied at school in the past year (CDC 2018; ED 2019)—a rate that is remarkably consistent across time and sources (CDC 2018). Rates of cyberbullying have been consistently lower than overall bullying since 2011 when the CDC started reporting data on cyberbullying (CDC, 2018), but the precise rate varies based on how students are asked. According to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 14.9 percent of all high school students (grades 9-12) report being electronically bulled in the past 12 months (CDC, 2018). According to the School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 15-16 percent of the 20 percent of students ages 12-18 who report being bullied at school during the 2016-17 school year report being bullied online or by text, amounting to approximately 3 percent of students reporting cyberbullying (ED, 2019).
Following the same patterns as bullying on school property, female students and white students are significantly more likely to have experienced cyberbullying than their male and black and Hispanic peers, respectively. Students who identify as gay, lesbian, and bisexual are also more likely to have experienced cyberbullying than their heterosexual peers (Kahn et al. 2018).
Despite its relatively low prevalence, states, school districts, and schools are motivated to prevent cyberbullying, as cyberbullying that occurs outside of school can impact the school environment. Many schools have begun implementing prevention programs and even monitoring students’ social media activity to try to address the behavior.
Approaches to preventing cyberbullying include direct programming to improve digital citizenship and social and emotional learning; providing mental health services for students affected by cyberbullying; explicitly including cyberbullying in discipline policies; and integrating cyberbullying prevention into broader bullying prevention and school climate improvement programs (Federal Commission on School Safety, 2018).
Research on the effectiveness of programs specifically targeted towards preventing cyberbullying is limited, with most evaluations occurring outside of the United States (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016; Gaffney et al., 2018). A meta-analysis of evaluations around the world found that anti-cyberbullying programs reduced perpetration by approximately 9-15 percent and reduced victimization by 14-15 percent. Neither of the programs that took place in the United States, however, significantly reduced cyberbullying perpetration or victimization (Gaffney et al., 2018). This is consistent with the evidence on bullying prevention programs more generally, which shows that programs that were effective in other countries did not significantly reduce bullying in the United States (Ttofi & Farrington, 2011). We do not yet understand what approaches to cyberbullying prevention work in this country.
Schools have found success preventing cyberbullying through broader efforts, though, including social emotional learning and school climate-based programming. In the words of Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, “You might have efforts to improve the climate of the school that aren’t specifically designed to address cyberbullying, but they’ll have that effect.”
Another approach is to integrate cyberbullying and digital citizenship education across students’ experiences and across the school system. Ideally, “the child is getting messages about responsible internet use from all the adults in their lives at school and at home,” Patchin said. This messaging can be facilitated by coordinating trainings and curricula across school staff so students get a consistent message, according to Mike Donlin, who facilitates these efforts for Washington state through their Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Some schools monitor students’ social media activity for cyberbullying. Emerging technology that automatically flags certain content as potential cyberbullying exists but is quite controversial, as it raises concerns about student privacy and its effectiveness is unknown. The algorithms to identify cyberbullying are still under development, the technology only works on some platforms, and it is ineffective if students’ social media accounts are private (Rosa et al., 2019). Monitoring alone also cannot prevent cyberbullying. Instead, schools must have the resources and procedures to respond when cyberbullying is identified (Patchin, 2013).
Rather than relying on monitoring, many schools have implemented anonymous reporting systems through which students and staff can submit concerns via mobile apps, websites, or old-fashioned drop-boxes. In this way, reporting cyberbullying alongside face-to-face bullying can become part of a school’s culture.
Patchin said that having a positive school climate makes this type of monitoring unnecessary: “[If] schools have a positive culture or climate, then the school won’t have to pay another company to monitor because the other students will take care of that.” Donlin echoed the importance of having positive school climate with a “see something – say something culture”: “The best way … is to establish that rapport so that the young folks know who they can talk to and trust and have a trusted adult and a trusted somebody that you can go to, and just share.”
Cyberbullying is a large concern in the education community but remains a minority of all bullying experienced by students. While the evidence on the effectiveness of interventions specifically designed to prevent cyberbullying remains limited, schools can continue to rely on more general school climate best practices that will additionally reach a larger audience and broader outcomes (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016).
This blog was developed by NCSSLE partner Child Trends, lead author Renee Ryberg, with input from Deb Temkin. We would also like to thank school districts or programs that contributed, including Mike Donlin, Program Supervisor, School Safety Center, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (Washington State) and Justin Patchin, Professor of Criminal Justice at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire; Co-Founder, Cyberbullying Research Center.