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UNH Study: Cyberbullying Not As Hurtful To Kids As In-Person Bullying

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While combating cyberbullying has been the emphasis for school officials and lawmakers of late, it turns out it may not be as emotionally damaging to children as traditional, in person bullying.

That’s according to a new study out of the University of New Hampshire.

Kimberly Mitchell is with the UNH Crimes Against Children Research Center. She was the lead researcher on the study, and joined NHPR’s Morning Edition to talk about her findings.

Where do you think this perception came from that cyberbullying is inherently worse?

There have been a lot of theories out there about why cyberbullying might be worse because of the potential audience, the sheer numbers of people who might see what’s going on, or lack of ability perhaps for the victim to stop what’s going on, or to take back what was said or done to them online.

However, we really didn’t find that to be the case. We found that the incidents that only occurred online were short in duration and were least likely to have multiple perpetrators. They did have a few more people notice what’s going on, but that didn’t really seem to impact what has happening. In those incidents, also the kids were likely to say they could stop what was happening. But when you add in the component of online and offline, that’s when things got more distressing for the kids.

So that mix of in-person and technology-based is most harmful?

Yes, and what we notice is there’s a lot of animosity between the victim and perpetrator in those incidents. As a result, the harassment might be more personal and meaningful. We also notice there was a lot of mutual harassment, so the victim and perpetrator were kind of going back and forth, doing a lot of harassing of each other. That happened a lot in these incidents. The victims also felt these incidents were harder to stop. The perpetrator knew embarrassing things about them. So overall, these mixed incidents are more intense and personal and complex than the other ones we found.

Obviously, cyberbullying can have harmful effects, as well, but can schools focusing on it too much have unintended consequences?

Yes, such a focus on technology as a main priority can distract educators and policymakers from the large range of types of peer victimization and bullying that are actually more harmful to kids. We shouldn’t ignore it completely, but such a focus on it can be detrimental.

So is there any value in schools treating cyberbullying and traditional bullying differently from a policy standpoint?

Actually, what we’re trying to encourage are prevention programs in school and outside of school that teach youth social and emotional skills like handling negative feelings and de-escalating tensions. We think those are promising. There’s been some out there and that kind of technique is going to help them, regardless of where things are happening.

Youth often don’t make the online and off-line distinction that we do as adults. For them, they may not even make a conscious distinction because technology is so intertwined in their lives and integrated into the lives. So how we talk to them about technology as parents, researchers and educators and ask questions about technology, I think we need to take that into account.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Michael serves as NHPR's Program Director. Michael came to NHPR in 2012, working as the station's newscast producer/reporter. In 2015, he took on the role of Morning Edition producer. Michael worked for eight years at The Telegraph of Nashua, covering education and working as the metro editor.
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