Sticks and stones may break our bones, but bullying texts from our friends and schoolmates will really hurt us, according to a new report by the American Psychological Association.
In what the authors have called the first empirical look at the influence of technology on bullying experiences, their report came to some rather surprising conclusions. It found that teens and kids who reported only experiencing cyberharassment felt less emotional harm than those who were bullied offline. But it was those who suffered bullying in the ‘real’ world and through social media apps or texting who fared the worst, feeling significantly angrier or more upset than either of the other two groups. These findings may overturn long-held ideas about the exact dangers of technology as it relates to bullying, the authors conclude.
Revisiting children and teens who had previously taken a survey on their exposure to violence, the authors ultimately obtained 791 interviews in this current study. Of the 791 participants, ages 10 to 20, 230 (34 percent) reported experiencing 311 total incidents of harassment in the past year (Interviews were conducted from December of 2013 to March of 2014). Out of these incidents, 54 percent occurred in-person only; 15 percent were strictly experienced through technology; and 31 percent involved a mix of both.
Noting that many academics and policymakers have worried that cyberbullying could be much worse for the victim than facing it offline, the authors found that the opposite was actually true. “Technology-only harassment incidents were significantly less distressing to victims than in-person harassment incidents,” they wrote, “Youth were more likely to feel like they could stop what was happening. And technology-only harassment incidents were less likely to be repeated and more likely to be of short duration compared with incidents that involved only in-person harassment.”
The disparity in their results, the authors explained, might have to do with how previous studies were conducted. “So far, research on cyberbullying has mostly been conducted separately from or parallel to research about in-person bullying, making it difficult to test whether new technology causes comparatively greater distress for youth,” they wrote, “The findings from the current study suggest that these concerns are mostly not well-founded, and this has important implications for retargeting prevention and intervention in this area.”
However, their other significant finding, that those who were bullied both in-person and through technological means felt the worst, suggests a more nuanced picture of technology’s role in harassment. “Victims of mixed harassment were the least likely to say they could get away or remove themselves from the situation quickly and this could be related to the fact that they were being victimized across multiple environments—at school, home, and via technology,” they wrote. Notably, it was older children who were more likely to experience this type of harassment, most often from friends and (ex) romantic partners who spread rumors or revealed embarrassing information about them.
While it appears that trolling comments alone doesn’t drive kids up the wall as much as a timely insult across the cafeteria, it does seem early to declare the fears over cyberharassment overblown. As younger generations become increasingly reliant on technology to enrich their social lives, it seems rather obvious that bullying may only become only more distressful for them.
The authors’ findings can’t help but bring to mind the tragic stories of teenagers like Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, whose eventual suicides were exacerbated by the torturous harassment they experienced both off-and online. It is these bullied who deserve the most attention, they explain. “We believe that focusing on harassment incidents that involve both in-person and technology elements should be a priority for educators and prevention experts who are trying to identify and prevent the most serious and harmful bullying,” lead author Kimberly J. Mitchell of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire said in a statement.