Debunking a bullying factoid

Readers, if you’ve seen this oft-cited statistic many times, as I have, you deserve to know it’s just not true: “160,000 students stay home from school each day due to bullying.” Top cyberbullying researcher and criminology professor Justin Patchin made it his mission to find out where that statistic came from. He and his fellow professor Sameer Hinduja founded the Cyberbullying Research Center, and they know nothing if not research. They have surveyed more than 12,000 middle and high school students over the past 10 years and have spoken to thousands more individually and in small groups in the students’ own schools in the US and other countries. In addition to all that, they did an exhaustive review of the research literature on cyberbullying, publishing those results last year (in a book I’m proud to have contributed to, but this is not bias, here, just facts; my bias is shown in my posting about this, but it’s a bias toward data as much as Justin and Sameer’s work).

So, having said all that, what did Justin find about that factoid? Interestingly, his post describing his search for the source is what led the answer to him more than the other way around. Though he did find a trail to the National Association of School Psychologists, it seemed to stop there. But then the NASP found his post, and here’s their comment about the statistic:

“Kathy Cowan, NASP Director of Communications, here. This is a great blog and I want to reiterate what I tell everyone who inquires about the 160,000 number. The number was extrapolated from the YRBSS (1993) using other, at this point unknown, research. Although originally ‘published’ through NASP (I am not sure who the author was), I can no longer find the original paper, article, or book chapter to confirm what other research was used or how the number was calculated. Even if the number was accurate at the time, it is completely out of date now and should no longer be used. I try to make this clear at every opportunity and have all of our directors on the lookout for its use by other organizations so that we can contact them. We do have numerous resources and articles on bullying prevention and intervention on our Web site, NASP is highly committed to using quality research and providing valid information to professionals, policymakers, and the public. Unfortunately much of the media is not and this is a sound bite they have loved to keep alive.”

Another commenter claims to know the source of the study, the Centers for Disease Control, and points to the original question asked in the survey almost 20 years ago – “During the past 30 days, on how many days did you not go to school because you felt you would be unsafe at school or on your way to or from school?” – saying it was “clearly overly broad and in no way should be used to support the thought that 160,000 students stay home from school every day out of fear of being bullied. They could feel unsafe for a multitude of reasons.” We can’t know if that was the exact question asked, but this does illustrate how data can be manipulated to sell programs or products or just to spread fear, generate traffic and drama, and do the public – especially children – a significant disservice. Here’s why: “Kids deserve the truth about cyberbullying.” And in addition to the Cyberbullying Research Center’s, here’s some more solid information on bullying and cyberbullying from Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.


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