Conference explores causes and impact of physical and cyberbullying

by Larry Magid

(scroll down for CBS News and KCBS News Radio segments on IBPA conference)

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

I spent three days this week at the International Bullying Prevention Association in Nashville, where several hundred bullying experts from around the world gathered to consider the latest research and strategies to counteract bullying.

There were several sessions that got my attention including one that focused on cyberbullying among pre-adolescent children and another that looked at the recent increase in bias-based bullying based on victims’ characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, weight and special needs.

Before I go on, I want to demystify the common conception that cyberbullying is common. It’s not. The statistics vary by year and study, but a report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that “In 2013, approximately 7 percent of students ages 12 to 18 reported being cyber-bullied anywhere during the school year.” The agency also said that “about 16 percent of students in the United States reported being electronically bullied in 2015.” Although the numbers vary, every reputable study finds that most students aren’t cyberbullied and don’t cyberbully others.

As researchers Elizabeth Englander and Sheri Bauman pointed out at the conference, most of the research on cyberbullying focuses on adolescents, but there is a growing concern about the behavior of younger children. That’s becoming more of an issue, partially because of increased use of mobile devices by kids under 11. A recent study of children 0 to 8, from Common Sense Media found that the average amount of time spent with mobile devices each day has skyrocketed from 5 minutes in 2011 to 15 minutes in 2013 to 48 minutes in 2017. Ninety-five percent of families with children ages 0 to 8 now have a smartphone, up from 63 percent in 2013.

Englander pointed to a few studies on younger kids, including a small study of Midwestern students that found that nearly 18 percent of kids in grades 3, 4 and 5 said they had been cyberbullied. A much larger study conducted by the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center put it at about 6 percent for 10- to 12-year-olds. Englander said that young children who own cell phones are more likely (8 percent vs. 1.5 percent) to be cyberbullies than those who don’t own phones and slightly likely to be victims of cyberbullying (5.9 percent vs. 4.8 percent) .

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Larry’s KCBS live segment about IBPA conference
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Just as the actual number of cyberbullying victims is a bit fuzzy, so is its likely impact. Research shows that the impact of cyber or physical bullying on a young person can range from very mild to very severe, with far more children reporting relatively minor consequences than those reporting severe reactions.

Conference presenter and suicide expert Nancy Buyle cautioned attendees to avoid claiming that bullying leads to suicide. While there is some correlation between bullying and suicidal thoughts, there is no evidence that it has a significant effect on the youth suicide rate, despite news stories that make the connection. There are some relatively rare cases of young people taking their own lives after a bullying incident but there are many more cases where that doesn’t happen and many other factors, including mental health, that can lead a young person to make that tragic decision. Buyle stressed that media reports that sensationalize the tenuous and often unproven connection between cases of cyberbullying and suicide can worsen the problem of suicide contagion. This echoes the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, whose Recommendations for Reporting on Suicides (reportingonsuicide.org) starts out with “More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals.”

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Larry’s 1-minute CBS News Tech Talk segment on IBPA conference
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I was fascinated by the panel titled “Bias-Based Bullying and Cyberbullying Since 2014,” given all the anecdotal reports of bullying and harassment before and after the 2016 election as well as recent hate-related events such as the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville. Englander and her colleagues from the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, Meghan McCoy and Alex Trahnstrom, showed data suggesting that “bias-based incidents seem to be increasing in the U.S.,” just as bullying incidences not associated with bias are decreasing. The researchers didn’t pin this observation on any people or events, and it’s important to point out that correlation doesn’t equal causation, but their data tracks with an unscientific yet interesting survey report from the Southern Poverty Law Center called “The Trump Effect: The Impact of The 2016 Presidential Election on Our Nation’s Schools,” which found that “Ninety percent of educators report that school climate has been negatively affected,” based on an online survey of more than 10,000 educators. That survey also found that eight in 10 educators “report heightened anxiety on the part of marginalized students, including immigrants, Muslims, African Americans and LGBT students.” The report cautions that its results “are not scientific,” and that “those who responded may have been more likely to perceive problems than those who did not.”

I’m hoping to see some scientific research to confirm or refute any connection between recent national events and youth bullying, but my takeaway from the conference is that “climate” matters, and by climate, I mean storms of discontent and divisiveness that affect us all. I also learned that bullying, including cyberbullying overall, is not rising to epidemic proportions,  but continues to remain a serious problem, especially for marginalized groups and others whose “difference” makes them targets.