ORLANDO, FLA (USA TODAY) - Cyberbullying is getting a lot of attention these days, but new research presented here Thursday suggests that teens spreading false, embarrassing or hostile information online about a peer isn't really as prevalent as all the attention might suggest.
Researcher Ian Rivers, a professor of human development at Brunel University in London, says there have been many studies about cyberbullying, going back to the early 2000s, but "the one thing that is apparent is we weren't all looking at the same thing."
He and others presenting research at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting say it has been difficult to really determine how prevalent bullying in the online world really is because findings "vary dramatically."
New research takes a closer look. Most young people aren't victims of cyberbullying, finds a study by Michele Ybarra, research director at the non-profit Center for Innovative Public Health Research in San Clemente, Calif. In two unpublished nationally representative studies - one of 1,158 youths and the other of 3,777 adolescents - 17% said they've been bullied on the Internet in the past year; 83% said they had not.
Ybarra has also studied whether the bully was perceived to have more power than the victim - defined as being "bigger than you, had more friends, was more popular, or had more power than you in another way." That power issue does make a difference, her study finds.
"What we see is that those who say they were bullied by somebody with differential power were twice as likely to say they were really upset by it," Ybarra says. "If bullied by somebody with more power than them, they report greater impact on their lives as the result."
Psychologist Dorothy Espelage, of the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, has been studying bullying for 18 years, including the old-fashioned face-to-face bullying and the online variety. She says her research about cyberbullying found the same 17% figure.
Espelage presented a study forthcoming in the journal Psychology of Violence, showing that parental monitoring makes a real difference in whether kids bully. Focusing on 1,023 middle school students in the Midwest, she found that "you should probably monitor your kids."
"They may be less likely to engage in perpetration in school and in perpetration online," Espelage says. "We know in criminology and sociology, the No. 1 predictor of any involvement in at-risk behavior is parental monitoring. It seems to be showing up confirmed in the face-to-face (bullying) and seems to be important in the online context."
Another study she co-authored that was also presented at the meeting found that those who are victimized are more likely to be perpetrators themselves. The researchers found that kids who were victimized face-to-face by peers at school were more likely to go online and engage in cyberbullying, to retaliate against what was happening at school.