Which Is Worse: The Schoolyard Thug or the Cyberbully?

Why you should care

Because small humans need advocates.

Too many headlines like this echo through our news feeds: Teenager Commits Suicide After Being Cyberbullied. It’s the era of Instagram and Facebook, where kids can torture other kids from the comfort of home, or the back of Dad’s minivan, or from wherever they’ve got Wi-Fi or 4G. But the new report “The Role of Technology in Peer Harassment: Does It Amplify Harm for Youth?” shows that our fears may to some degree be misplaced:

In-person bullying is actually more destructive than the virtual kind.

With funding from the National Institute of Justice, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, researchers conducted phone interviews with 791 youth between the ages of 10 and 20 who had been included in a previous nationwide Technology Harassment Victimization Study. Thirty-four percent admitted to being bullied in the prior year; of those incidents, 15 percent were cyber and a little more than half happened in person. A third of kids were bullied by a hybrid of tech and in person.

Our assumptions about the harms of cyberbullying make sense. You’re susceptible anytime, anywhere, and it can involve numerous attackers. And the humiliation can last a lifetime (thanks, Internet). That said, face-to-face attacks are more likely to be ongoing. (Schoolyard attacks are also still much more common than technology-delivered ones, the study found.) There is often a more pronounced power imbalance — the bully is bigger, older or more popular. And victims can’t escape by dropping their iPhone in the toilet, so there’s a feeling of helplessness. Barbara Greenberg, a teen psychologist, also points out that when bullying happens through a screen, the victim can react privately. “We as human beings function differently in groups; that’s when we feel the most shame,” she says. “We feel worthless.”

The hybrid bullying, perhaps not surprisingly, is the worst due to its unrelenting nature — and if someone is putting in the effort to attack on multiple fronts it probably means the vitriol runs deep. “Those ones were more intense, more personal, more complex, and the kid doesn’t feel like they can stop what’s going on,” says Kimberly Mitchell, the study’s lead author and an assistant psychology professor at the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center.

This study comes at a critical time in an age-old phenomenon. Bullying used to be seen as a kids-will-be-kids part of childhood, and if a victim complained, he or she might be further ostracized as the dreaded fink. But the tides have been turning. Kids now land in jail for terrorizing their peers — and so do their parents. Measures including legislation, DOJ-funded research into “youth courts,” and better communication between schools and parents have all been making the rounds as ways of addressing bullying.

More longitudinal studies with more participants need to be done. And the recent study didn’t directly look at which types of bullying were most likely to lead to violence or suicide. In the meantime, though, Greenberg says it should be a wake-up call to parents and educators to check their kids’ phones and patrol the hallways. Because even as technology advances, some things will never change.

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