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Bullying in the Digital Age: Tips for Building a Culture of Respect On and Offline


With the increased attention to bullying and cyberbullying across the country, schools are scrambling to address both age-old and emerging challenges. Author, Erin Walsh gives us the recent research to help us better understand the scope of the problem and craft more effective solutions.

Topics Covered:

  • Role Models
  • Student-Teacher Relations
  • Staff Development
  • Engagement

Premium Content:

Young people today lead digital lives that are increasingly mobile, participatory, and connected. Spending an average of fifty-three hours a week with media and technology, the only thing that many teens do more of is sleep.1 Nearly 78 percent of 12-17 year olds now have their own cell phone and exchange an average of 167 texts a day.2 Far from being passive consumers, almost one third of young people record and upload video to the Internet and 40 percent use video chat to connect with their friends.3 As young people navigate this new world, they leave permanent digital footprints in their wake.

Many young people have taken charge of these digital footprints, using new technologies as powerful tools for learning, creativity, and advocacy. Indeed, the majority of young people using social media report that their peers are mostly kind to them online.4 Unfortunately, some use these tools to tease, bully, or harass their peers. The 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey indicated that 16 percent of high school students were electronically bullied the previous year.5

There is increased attention to bullying and cyberbullying across the country and schools are scrambling to address both age-old and emerging challenges. Recent research helps us better understand the scope of the problem and craft more effective solutions. A couple of key takeaways:

  • Not everything is bullying. While mean behavior, teasing, and cruelty online is not appropriate, it isn’t the same thing as bullying. Cyberbullying is defined as the use of technology to support aggressive, deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior intended to hurt others. There is often a power imbalance between the bully and the victim, making it challenging for the victim to defend him or herself.7
  • Bullying and cyberbullying should be taken seriously. Research shows that bullying is serious and has emotional and psychological impacts on victims that persist into adulthood.6 In other words, the old adage “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” could not be further from the truth.
  • Technology changes the dynamics of bullying in at least three ways:
  1. Access to private space. Victims of cyberbullying can be targeted any time of the day and in their personal space.
  2. Ease. With just the click of a button, cruel messages can be spread at lightning speed.
  3. Emotional distance. Some psychologists argue our brains are not attuned to emotional signals while interacting online, making us less attentive to the emotional consequences of our actions. 8
  • Technology alone is not the problem. New technologies can make it easier for students to bully one another and can complicate bullying dynamics, but what happens online is generally not isolated to the web. Instead, it tends to be deeply entangled with offline behavior.9 This means that blocking Internet access is not going to solve the problem in a school where students don’t feel connected and where the norm is cruel and mean behavior.
  • Technology can be part of the solution. Technology can be an important tool to engage youth, change school culture, and offer support to struggling young people.10

It is clear from the research that bullying and cyberbullying are complicated issues and there are no silver bullet solutions. However, research has shown that anti-bullying interventions that focus on social norms and school climate are especially promising, This is especially true of those that target the behavior of bystanders, who have the power to change what is deemed normal and acceptable behavior. Bullying behaviors are related to a host of other issues including family life, peer relationships, school climate, and norms. Curbing bullying in all of its forms requires comprehensive and coordinated solutions that address both online and offline contexts. As opposed to simply targeting bullying behaviors, recent research suggests that effective programs should include additional “ecologically based” components such as student and parent involvement, increased adult supervision, classroom management, teacher training, school-wide policies, and cooperative group work.11

However, there are things that you can do right away to address this important issue:

  1. Advocate for prevention over punitive approaches. Strengthen your focus on digital citizenship, school climate and school connectedness, and social emotional learning.
  2. Avoid “zero tolerance” policies. Students should understand that there are consequences to bullying, but zero tolerance policies tend to exacerbate the problem by encouraging youth to avoid involving adults.
  3. Host a training so that every staff member understands what bullying and cyberbullying are and the school’s approach to addressing them.
  4. Involve parents. Bullying behaviors are not isolated to school. Encourage teachers to talk about bullying and cyberbullying in interactions with parents. 
  5. Explore the Common Sense Media Cyberbullying Toolkit for educators http://www.commonsensemedia.org/educators/cyberbullying-toolkit

Resources and notes:

  1. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8-18 year olds. Menlo Park, CA.
  2. Pew Internet and American Life. (2011). Teens, smartphones, and texting. Washington D.C.: Amanda Lenhart.
  3. Pew Internet and American Life. (2012). Teens and online video. Washington D.C.: Amanda Lenhart.
  4. Pew Internet and American Life. (2011). Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites. Washington D.C.: Amanda Lenhart.
  5. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey. (2011). Accessed at: http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/yrbs/index.htm
  6. Copeland, et. al. (2013). Adult psychiatric outcomes of bullying and being bullied by peers in childhood and adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry. 70(4).
  7. Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. (2012). Bullying in a networked era: A literature review. Boston: Levy, et. al.
  8. Goleman, G. (February 2007). Flame first, think later: New clues to email misbehavior. New York Times.
  9. Born This Way Foundation and Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. (2012). What you must know to help combat youth bullying, meanness, and cruelty. Boston: Boyd, D. & Palfrey, J.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.

Writer: Erin Walsh is a national speaker on issues related to brain development, parenting, and the impact of media and technology on child health and development. She is a speaker for Bolster Collaborative and guest author for the Practice Brief Series. She is also one of the founders of Mind Positive Parenting, where she translates the latest discoveries in brain science into practical advice and strategies for parents and youth-serving professionals.


This brief is one in a series describing new knowledge and innovative research emerging from the field of youth development. The briefs are intended to inform parents, professionals, and volunteers in education, youth development, and related fields; and to contribute to a heightened national awareness of youth development practice.



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