Despite widespread media concerns, cyberbullying is still a relatively rare event for British children – far less common than ordinary, face-to-face bullying, according to a new study.
The report, published in the journal Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, looked at questionnaires from 120,000 15-year-olds. It asked them whether they had been bullied in any of eight different ways, including two forms of cyberbullying. About a third – 36% of girls and 24% of boys – reported having been regularly bullied, in any way, in the last two months. But just 3% reported having been the victim of cyberbullying, and the study found that the impact of cyberbullying on children's mental health and wellbeing was small.
Even more dramatically, just 406 children out of the 110,000 who gave information on bullying said that they had been regularly cyberbullied and had not been bullied in the "real" world, compared to 27% who'd been bullied offline but experienced no bullying online.
The researchers say this shows that cyberbullying is usually simply one more tactic that bullies use against already-bullied children, and is not creating a new population of bullying victims.
"It's pretty disheartening stuff," Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist at the University of Oxford and one of the authors of the study, told BuzzFeed News. "About a third of 15-year-olds report significant bullying in their lives." But cyberbullying was only a small part of the story. In terms of children's wellbeing, he said, "cyberbullying accounts for less than one-tenth of 1% of the variation" that the researchers saw.
The study looked at children who are regularly bullied, rather than those who've experienced a single incident, because that is how most studies of traditional bullying are carried out, said Przybylski. "Well-meaning charities and pressure groups have put out these reports about the dangers of cyberbullying, and you hear horror stories in the news," he said. "But we found that [the debate] was missing a lot of the nuance that traditional bullying research has.
"It's as though health researchers were asking people, 'Have you ever been sick?'"
Instead, children were asked if they had been bullied at least two or three times in the last month. That wasn't totally arbitrary, said Przybylski: "Traditional bullying researchers will tell you that kids who report being bullied once a month don't look very different [in the data] to kids who aren't bullied.
"But if it's two or three times a month, they look a lot worse off, in terms of health and psychosocial wellbeing."
"It's a well-conducted study and Lucy [Bowes, Przybylski's coauthor] knows a lot about bullying," Louise Arsenault, a professor of developmental psychology at King's College London, told BuzzFeed News. "I'm impressed with how they collected the data. The most important thing is that they've controlled for face-to-face bullying." Arsenault was not involved in the study, although she supervised Bowes's PhD.
Arsenault said the results support the findings in her own, as yet unpublished, work. "We find that cyber victimisation is not that common and offline is more frequent," she said. "We tend to think it's everywhere but it's not. That's not to say it's OK to be bullied online, but you can't look at it in isolation. It tends to happen along with other kinds, and the children with the worst outcomes are the ones who get both."
The study found other interesting things. For instance, girls were more likely to report that they had been victims of seven out of the eight kinds of bullying, with the exception being physical violence. "Girls report much lower life satisfaction than boys," said Przybylski.
Both Przybylski and Arsenault acknowledge that the study has limitations. Because it is cross-sectional – a snapshot of a particular group at a particular time – it can't say whether cyberbullying is becoming more or less common. But it's an important reminder, says Arsenault, that just because cyberbullying gets a lot of media attention shouldn't mean we should lose focus on the more common face-to-face variety. "The hype about cyber victimisation being the cause of everything is misguided," she said.
Tom Chivers is a science writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.
Contact Tom Chivers at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.