Bully study hype? Do 80% in high school really see bullying weekly?

The anti-bullying movement got an injection of new, shocking statistics to work with in a dosomething.org online survey that suggests 80 percent of high school students see bullying incidents each week. But considering the uncertainties of what bullying really is, this may not be a fair snapshot of the life of American teens.

Detroit Free Press/AP
A new bullying study suggests 80 percent of American high school students see cases of bullying each week, adding to the anti-bullying movement momentum. Vicki Carlson, owner of Ink & Thread, shows an anti-bully t-shirt she designed to sell in West Branch, Mich., Sept. 27, 2012.

There’s a new study out today about bullying in American high schools, and at first glance, the numbers from this one are shocking:

Scouring data from more than 50,000 teens across the country, researchers with DoSomething.org, a social action organization for young people, found that more than 80 percent of American high school students see bullying every week. Only a tiny percentage – three percent – said that bullying at their school was “not an issue at all,” and fully half of teens said they rarely or never see their peers intervene. (This despite almost everyone saying that the best way to combat bullying is to have other students, rather than teachers or parents, intervene.)

Also, contrary research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and other cyberbullying studies, the DoSomething.org survey found that the most commonly reported location of frequent bullying was online: more than two out of three students reported frequent online bullying. (In contrast, 67 percent of teens in Pew research reported that bullying and harassment happens more offline.)

All in all, it is a grim look at the state of teenage life in our country’s high schools.

But before the hand-wringing gets too intense, let’s take a closer look at “The Bully Report.” Because as we have written here before, there is a lot of hype surrounding the growing anti-bullying movement, and it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in sound bites.

First of all, not even the study authors are suggesting that the data garnered from this massive survey is scientific. The numbers come from a Facebook app that DoSomething.org launched in partnership with the movie "Bully" – a film that has received its own share of controversy for what some advocates say is a simplistic, and even reactionary, way of portraying a complicated topic.  (Take a look at some of our earlier posts about the ambiguities of the growing anti-bullying trend.)

DoSomething.org designed the Bully App to be active for eight weeks, with hopes that 15,000 people would take part. More than 21,000 people installed the application and graded their schools within the first 10 days. The organization decided to let the data keep coming in, and within five months, 183,525 people had used the app to report on their experiences and perceptions with bullying.

So right away, the researchers knew that they were dealing with students who were not simply online, but students who had Facebook pages.  (And there has been research showing that teens who spend a lot of time on social media sites are more likely to encounter online bullying.) 

Eventually, researchers cut the responses they would evaluate by half, after eliminating college students and adults reporting retroactively on their experiences, and by cross checking Facebook identifications with the responses users gave about their schools, ages, and so on.

Still, “the content of the Bully App was casual by design – prompts within the app were chatty and at times leading – and all the participants self-selected to take part,” the report states. But due to the large volume of data captured, it continues, and because it correlates with findings from other more scientific studies, the survey is still valid.

And that may be.  But even so, the student answers to many of the questions don’t paint quite as dire a situation as the soundbites about the survey suggest.

That whole issue about nobody intervening? There’s another question in the survey that asks “When you have seen people intervene in bullying at your school, who usually steps up?” Only 9 percent of male students and 10 percent of female students answered “no one.”

And to the question of “Do you think bullying is a problem in your school?”, while only two or three percent of respondents answer “No way. Not an issue at all,” 54 percent answered either “Not really, it doesn’t cause problems for us” or “I don’t know if I’d say ‘terrible,’ but it happens.”

Now this isn’t to suggest either that the study should be discounted – it shouldn’t – or to say that it paints a rosy picture of harmony and kindness at high schools across the United States. It doesn’t. The survey is massive, and the fact that more than 180,000 people were compelled to share their own experiences about bullying on Facebook may say as much as their answers.

But with the amazing amount of attention these days to bullying and anti-bullying initiatives, it is important to parse studies and initiatives carefully. The risk, of course, is that shocking soundbites and potentially inflated numbers lead us astray from finding fixes to the sort of bullying that is very real, and emotionally and physically traumatic. 

At the end of the report, researchers write that “immediate steps should be taken by school officials to address bullying in their schools.” But this is the big question for school administrators and parents: What, exactly, can they do? 

Despite the growing number of anti-bullying laws and increased pressure on schools to have anti-bullying policies, much research has found that most institution-designed interventions are not particularly helpful, and sometimes even counter productive.

It is tricky even defining bullying.  The survey is a case in point. The Bully App described bullying to users as “a repeated, awful action that makes someone feel bad about themselves. It takes on many forms – like nasty texts, physical harassment, insults, even dirty looks.”

This description might be narrow enough to exclude television anchor Jennifer Livingston as a bullying victim. (Check out our story on that bully breakdown.)  But it is far broader than most academic-based definitions of bullying, which include the crucial component of a power imbalance between victim and perpetrator.

RELATED: Test yourself on the top 5 bullying myths

Bullying is, clearly, a problem. Research on top of research has shown all sorts of long term negative results from this sort of meanness between children. But as any school administrator knows, it’s a tall order to determine which behavior is “awful,” or to stop “dirty looks” that make someone feel bad. 

Bullying, it turns out, is just not as simple as it seems. Even on a Facebook app.

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