Online, Bullying Risks Build Up
Students are under ever-increasing pressure to perform academically, to navigate complex social scenes in school and online, and to keep safe.
A Pennsylvania report released in August 2019 found that the state’s new Safe 2 Say Something school threat reporting system generated more than 23,000 tips in its first six months of operation, with submissions via mobile app, website, and tip line. Most reports were not about threats of violence toward schools or other people. Instead, bullying, self-harm, and suicide were the most common concerns brought forward.
About 3,600 tips were submitted about bullying or cyberbullying.
“The numbers in this report show the reality of what our children are facing in school as they struggle with bullying, anxiety, and thoughts of self-harm,” the report says.
Approximately 20 percent of U.S. students ages 12 through 18 report being bullied at school, according to a survey from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released in early 2019. The subsequent report, Student Reports of Bullying: Results From the 2017 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), included students from both public and private schools in the 2016–17 school year.
The NCVS School Crime Supplement has examined bullying since 2005, and the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education shows a decrease in bullying at school, with rates dropping from 29 percent in 2005 to 20 percent in 2017. However, as technology increasingly integrates with students’ social lives, bullying becomes more complex.
Bullying is different from other forms of school-based aggression, teasing, or behavioral problems. It is a form of aggressive, repeated behavior that can cause harm to the victim (via physical, cyber, social, or verbal bullying) and involves an imbalance of power—the bully could be from an ethnic majority, be bigger or older than the victim, or have a higher perceived social status, for example. To qualify as bullying, an action must meet those three criteria: it must be aggressive, repeated, and include a power imbalance, says Amanda Nickerson, Ph.D., a professor of school psychology at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Nickerson is also the director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention.
The NCVS found that the most frequent type of power imbalance used in bullying was the bully’s ability to influence what other students think (56.1 percent), followed by popularity (49.3 percent) and physical strength (40.5 percent).
Cyberbullying in particular—involving repeated virtual harassment or harm against a victim, often through social media outlets—has changed the nature and scope of the struggle to address bullying, Nickerson says. The anonymity possible online, as well as the sheer viral nature of digital platforms, makes it easy for students to join in without seeing the potential consequences. In addition, bullying now continues long after the student leaves school for the day.
“It’s no longer a situation where you incur bullying in school, and then you go home and have a respite from it,” says Kevin Craig, assistant vice president of safety, security, and investigations for Porzio Compliance Services and a former school safety and security director and anti-bullying specialist. Craig is also a member of the ASIS School Safety and Security Council. “The bullying continues 24/7 on social media, and it's prevalent among our teenagers today.”
Gender and age play a role in reporting rates for both traditional forms of school bullying and cyberbullying. According to Lynn Addington, a professor in the department of justice, law, and criminology at American University, more female students report cyberbullying than male students, and more female than male students report traditional bullying related to social exclusion or rumors. “When looking at these patterns based on age, access might play a role,” she adds. “More older (high school) than younger students report cyberbullying at school. This is likely due in part to their access to smartphones and technology at school.”
In the 2017–2018 school year, 13.9 percent of U.S. public schools reported student bullying, and 14.9 percent reported cyberbullying among students, according to the School Survey on Crime and Safety: 2017–18 from the U.S. Department of Education and NCES.
Bullying rates—both in-person and online—were highest in schools with enrollments of 1,000 students or more, and schools in towns had higher bullying rates (17.9 percent) compared to city or rural schools (13.4 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively).
The report found that a higher percentage of U.S. middle schools reported that student bullying occurred at school at least once a week (28 percent) compared with high schools (16 percent) and primary schools (9 percent). Cyberbullying in particular was more frequent at high schools and middle schools—30 and 33 percent, respectively—which reported incidents at least once a week, compared to 5 percent for primary schools, the survey found.
To address this pervasive challenge, school officials have to look beyond the schoolhouse door, especially because consequences from cyberbullying spill over into the school day. A weekend bullying session on Snapchat, for example, could escalate into a confrontation once the bully and the victim meet in the hallway on Monday morning.
Bullying prevention and response requires a whole-school approach, with a focus on building trusting relationships with students and developing a positive school culture, Craig says. “Every student needs to be connected with at least one caring adult in the school building,” he adds. This means teachers, administrators, staff, and security personnel should reach out to students who seem isolated or distressed to make a connection.
Not all schools are technologically savvy—or well-funded—enough to manage an anonymous reporting app or similar solution, but that should not stop them from moving forward with an old-school solution, Craig says. “Bully boxes”—message boxes that students can anonymously slip tips and notes into—have been useful, especially among younger students.
Most U.S. states have specific laws about how bullying reports need to be handled. Having multiple stakeholders involved in the response has proven a useful tactic.
Behavioral threat assessment or multidisciplinary teams can be pulled together for any behavior, not just threats of violence, and having multiple stakeholders—particularly those from administrative and mental health backgrounds—participating can result in a more rounded approach, says Kenna Powell, CPP, director of safety, security, and emergency management at Providence Day School in North Carolina.
“No one department’s shoulders are broad enough to carry the whole weight of school security,” says Powell, who is also a member of the ASIS School Safety and Security Council.
Especially for younger students, involving the school’s mental health team or counselors can help ensure that the messaging around security and bullying is developmentally appropriate. The best response to bullying will vary widely between kindergarten and high school, she adds, but investing long-term resources and efforts into building an anti-bullying school culture and community can pay off.
According to Nickerson, addressing bullying in school culture requires multiple components. Having a clear, well-defined policy about bullying, cyberbullying, and harassment, as well as training on response, reporting, and consequences, is important for students, staff, and parents. Schools should have support systems that promote positive behavior, and they should invest more time and resources in social–emotional learning approaches that will help students learn to navigate interpersonal relationships in a healthy way—both in person and online.
According to the NCES Student Reports of Bullying survey, the presence of physical security measures alone does little to curb bullying. The presence of security guards or assigned police officers, staff supervision in hallways, security cameras, or a posted student code of conduct did not have a marked effect on the percentages of students who were bullied or not bullied.
“Quick fixes never solve problems such as bullying that involve a variety of causes,” Addington says. “There is no evidence that indicates visible school security measures such as cameras or security personnel reduce bullying. What has received social scientific support are programs that involve addressing the overall school climate and programs that involve a range of stakeholders (administrators, teachers, students, and parents).”
From Craig’s perspective, security can play a larger role in bullying prevention mechanisms, especially supervising areas where bullying is likely to occur, such as stairwells or surveillance camera blind spots. “Bullying rarely happens in private,” he says.
When responding to an incident of bullying, school officials should remember to address all three parties: the bully, the victim, and the bystanders. Work with each party separately—at least to start—and ensure the victim feels supported and safe; identify the effect bullying is having on each party; and share strategies on how to stop bullying or cope with social stresses, Nickerson says.
For the perpetrator, there should be logical, age-appropriate consequences that will change behavior, she adds. Involve parents and work with the perpetrator to determine what they were trying to achieve through bullying—such as popularity or attention—and devise strategies to channel these desires in a different way.
Bullying may be a cry for help or a sign of difficulties at home, says Craig, so diverting some resources to the bully as well as the victim can improve both students’ lives.
Bystanders—especially those students who film or share incidents on their smartphones instead of intervening—should also be addressed following an incident. School officials may not be able to hold students accountable for not taking action, Craig says, but there can be consequences for students who violate codes of conduct for technology use in school, especially when students are promoting or sharing bullying content on social media.
An underused resource in addressing bullying is the students themselves, says Craig. Student-driven initiatives, such as after-school resource groups or anonymous reporting structures, can resonate more effectively with their peers.
When addressing bystanders in bullying incidents, the goal is to empower students to recognize what’s happening and accept responsibility for intervening in some way, whether that’s reporting to an adult, intervening directly if they feel safe and comfortable enough to do so, supporting the victim, or working with others to intervene, Nickerson says.
“About half of the time when someone intervenes like that, it stops,” Nickerson says. “We also know if somebody is being victimized and they have people that are stepping in and helping, they’re less depressed and they’re less likely to experience those negative effects.”