The Connection Between Cyberbullying and Traditional “Offline” Bullying

Jessica Tomaszewski, MD

Waasdorp TE, Bradshaw CP. The overlap between cyberbullying and traditional bullying. J Adolesc Health. 2015;56(5):483-488.

Cyberbullying—bullying that employs electronic technology such as email, text messaging, or social media—is becoming increasingly frequent as adolescents have more access to electronic devices. While “offline” bullying has some similarities with the electronic form, there are important differences. Cyberbullying enables the distribution of messages anonymously and quickly to a large audience, and it can occur 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Waasdorp and Bradshaw’s recently published study compared traditional bullying with cyberbullying to determine whether they are distinct forms of aggression or whether cyberbullying is a similar act through a different medium, and whether the two might warrant different approaches to prevention and counseling.

The researchers analyzed data from 28,104 adolescents in grades 9 through 12 at 58 Maryland high schools. Survey participants had been asked about several types of bullying behaviors that represented 4 different victimization experiences: relational, verbal, physical, and electronic. The authors examined students’ gender, grade, and ethnicity for differences in the responses, and they reviewed how each of the various student characteristics were associated with different forms of bullying.

Among the most alarming findings is that 23% of the students reported having been a victim of bullying in the previous month. The majority (40%) reported only 1 form of bullying, while 27.7% reported 2 forms, 19.5% reported 3 forms, and 12.9% reported having experienced all 4 forms of bullying. Approximately 88% of victims experienced verbal bullying, 53.3% experienced relational bullying, 38.4% experienced physical bullying, and 25.6% experienced cyberbullying.

Girls were more likely to report cyberbullying, relational bullying, and verbal bullying, while boys were more likely to be involved with physical bullying. Black respondents were significantly less likely than white respondents to report being bullied in all forms. Hispanic adolescents were significantly less likely to report being relationally bullied than white adolescents. The authors noted, however, that black youth tend to underreport bullying, which makes these data more difficult to interpret.

All told, 3,468 students reported that they had been cyberbullied in the last 3 months; of these, 32.7% indicated that the cyberbully was someone they “thought was a friend,” 27.7% thought it was someone in their school, 15.9% did not know the person, 11.2% indicated the bully was a stranger, 9.6% indicated that it was a friend, and 2.8% indicated it was a relative. The majority of cyberbullying instances occurred by way of a social networking site (61.6%) or text messaging (39.6%).

The largest percentage of students who reported having been cyberbullied said they had experienced in-person bullying before, after, or at the same time as cyberbullying. This important observation should remind health care providers to be sure to ask about all forms of bullying, both electronic and in-person, when a patient discloses cyberbullying.

Moreover, only 32.6% of cyberbullied students said that they had told a teacher or parent, perhaps out of fear of privacy intrusions or device confiscations. The authors call for further research into coping strategies for cyberbullied youth and recommended responses for adults—especially important given that cyberbullying victims are more likely to carry a weapon to school than victims of traditional in-person bullying.

As the use of digital technology expands, we must be mindful of the effect on our pediatric patients and adapt our counseling approach to integrate the possibility of cyberbullying. Uncovering electronic bullying very often will reveal—or help prevent—the occurrence of in person bullying, as well.

Jessica Tomaszewski, MD, is an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a hospitalist pediatrician at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware.

Charles A. Pohl, MD—Series Editor, is a professor of pediatrics, senior associate dean of student affairs and career counseling, and associate provost for student affairs at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.