New technologies bring new ways for humans to make life miserable for one another. But using the latest digital tools to bully doesn’t cause as much emotional harm as what’s been taking place on schoolyards for years.
Cyberbullying — that horrid byproduct of the Internet age — doesn’t feel as hurtful to youth as when young people are harassed in person, according to a study published this week in the American Psychological Association’s journal, Psychology of Violence. The worst kind of harassment, though, involves a mix of both in-person and digital interactions, the researchers wrote.
Such findings suggest that “focusing on technology as a main, primary concern can be distracting to educators and policymakers,” said lead researcher Kimberly Mitchell of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center.
There’s a “whole range of peer victimization and bullying,” Mitchell told The Post. “It happens so often to kids. If we just keep focusing exclusively on technology, we run the risk of forgetting about these other situations going on.”
For the study, a nationally representative sample of 791 people between the ages of 10 and 20 answered phone-survey questions about the bullying they endured over the past year. About one-third of the respondents reported a total of 311 incidents. More than half of the bullying happened only in person; 31 percent involved a mix of technology and in-person harassment; and just 15 percent of the bullying happened via technology only.
Some key reasons help explain why the young respondents described traditional bullying as worse, researchers said. In-person bullying tended to involve multiple harassers and people who wielded more social power than the victims, and the bullying happened multiple times — all of which made the harassment feel more harmful.
“The incidents that only occurred online really appeared to be short in duration,” Mitchell said. “They were perpetuated by people they didn’t know very well — either someone they met online or someone they might consider a stranger. Whereas these mixed incidents were really being perpetrated by other youth that they classified as friends or ex-friends.”
Much of what respondents described as cyberbullying happened via text messages, not just on social networks and public forums. And there was a lot of harassing back.
The perception that cyberbullying is inherently worse than old-school, in-person harassment, the researchers wrote, has been fueled by the ability of technology to allow harassers to spread information anonymously and quickly, and reach victims at all times. But that hypothesis hasn’t really been empirically tested before, the researchers said.
It’s unclear why the youths described mixed interactions as the most harmful, or whether adding online harassment to something already happening offline is what made the bullying unbearable, Mitchell said. But kids were mostly likely to say mixed interactions were ones “they couldn’t stop,” Mitchell said. For instance, imagine going to school and facing bullying in person, only to have it continue via text messages, she said.
The real focus shouldn’t be on just how harassment occurs, but why, and how to look for warning signs. Mitchell, who has studied cyberbullying among youths since 2000, said adults need to “shift our thinking” in how to discuss technology with youth.
“We have a tendency to think online versus offline, technology versus off-, whereas kids, they have a hard time,” she said. “It’s so engrossed in their lives. It’s such a big piece of who they are. They might not always make the same distinction.”