By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY
ORLANDO - Old-style face-to-face bullying is still the way most young people are victimized, even though it's cyberbullying that seems to get all the headlines, an international bullying expert told psychology professionals Saturday.
Reports of a cyberbullying explosion over the past few years because of increasing use of mobile devices have been greatly exaggerated, says psychologist Dan Olweus of the University of Bergen in Bergen, Norway. He says his latest research, published this spring in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology, finds not many students report being bullied online at all.
"Contradicting these claims, it turns out that cyberbullying, when studied in proper context, is a low-prevalence phenomenon, which has not increased over time and has not created many 'new' victims and bullies," the study finds.
Olweus says his research includes large-scale studies lasting four to five years; one includes 450,490 students in 1,349 schools in grades 3-12 conducted between 2007-10. Another study followed 9,000 students in grades 4-10 in 41 schools in Oslo from 2006-10.
"There is very little scientific support to show that cyberbullying has increased over the past five to six years, and this form of bullying is actually a less frequent phenomenon," he says.
In the U.S. sample, 18% of students said they had been verbally bullied, while about 5% said they had been cyberbullied. About 10% said they had bullied others verbally and 3% said they had bullied others electronically. In the Norwegian sample, 11% of students reported being verbally bullied; 4% reported being the victim; 4% said they had verbally bullied others; and 1% said they had cyberbullied.
His research also finds that 80%-90% of cyberbullied youth were also bullied verbally or physically in-person. Most cyberbullies - who spread false, embarrassing or hostile information online about a peer - also bullied in the traditional ways, he says.
Those who are bullied in any fashion often suffer from depression, poor self-esteem and anxiety and even have suicidal thoughts, Olweus says.
Other research about cyberbullying presented earlier at the American Psychological Association meeting also found less of a prevalence than many believe, largely because the studies haven't been uniform in their methods, experts say.
Findings "vary dramatically," says Ian Rivers, a professor of human development at Brunel University in London. He says there have been many studies about cyberbullying, going back to the early 2000s, but "the one thing that is apparent is we weren't all looking at the same thing."
Two new, unpublished nationally representative studies do offer something more concrete. Researcher Michele Ybarra of the non-profit Center for Innovative Public Health Research in San Clemente, Calif., has found that about 17% said they've been bullied on the Internet in the past year; 83% said they had not. One study was of 1,158 youths and the other of 3,777 adolescents.
Ybarra has also studied whether the bully was perceived to have more power than the victim - defined as being "bigger than you, had more friends, was more popular, or had more power than you in another way." That power issue does make a difference, her study finds.
"What we see is that those who say they were bullied by somebody with differential power were twice as likely to say they were really upset by it," Ybarra says. "If bullied by somebody with more power than them, they report greater impact on their lives as the result."
Psychologist Dorothy Espelage, of the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, has been studying bullying for 18 years, including the old-fashioned face-to-face bullying and the online variety. She says her research about cyberbullying found the same 17% figure.
Espelage presented a study forthcoming in the journal Psychology of Violence, showing that parental monitoring makes a real difference in whether kids bully. Focusing on 1,023 middle school students in the Midwest, she found that "you should probably monitor your kids."
"They may be less likely to engage in perpetration in school and in perpetration online," Espelage says. "We know in criminology and sociology, the No. 1 predictor of any involvement in at-risk behavior is parental monitoring. It seems to be showing up confirmed in the face-to-face (bullying) and seems to be important in the online context."
Another study she co-authored that was also presented at the meeting found that those who are victimized are more likely to be perpetrators themselves. The researchers found that kids who were victimized face-to-face by peers at school were more likely to go online and engage in cyberbullying, to retaliate against what was happening at school.
Olweus, who has studied bullying for decades, says even though cyberbullying is getting a lot of attention, schools and parents should put the focus on countering traditional bullying.