Cyberbullying study one of the first to research elementary school-aged youth

Cyberbullying studies are a dime a dozen, but not so for cyberbullying studies about elementary school students. One of the first of its kind was just released. How many 5th graders own a smart phone, again?

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
Michael Nathanson plays on the iPhone with his son, Beckett, in the living room of their home on January 15, in Somerville, Mass.

Rare is the opportunity to get insights into cyberbullying in elementary school because most US research has focused on youth aged 12 and up. The Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC) really delivered by surveying a huge sample – more than 11,700 – 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders three times over a year and a half, and I believe the results clearly demonstrate the need for social-emotional learning and media literacy education starting in even lower grades.

For example, 90 percent of 3rd graders play interactive games (and they didn’t just start in 3rd grade!), and most cyberbullying among them occurs in online games, MARC found. But before you jump to any conclusions about games, note this finding:

“Children at
 the highest risk for repeatedly cyberbullying others were the most likely to report problems 
on Facebook, email, or through text messaging.” What this suggested to MARC is that – though safety and social-literacy education should fold in online game play – it shouldn’t stop there but embrace Facebook, e-mail, and texting too, even for under-13 Facebook users. The 19 percent of girls in grades 3 to 5 who were using Facebook in 2010 increased to 49 percent by 2012. Remember that Facebook and social games are on phones too, and there’s lots of anecdotal evidence that plenty of 4th and 5th graders are in Instagram (see this) and game apps like Clash of Clans.

Sociality increasingly mobile in every way

More than half of the 5th graders surveyed had smartphones last year (the respondents were from all socio-economic brackets), and MARC found that “owning a smartphone was a significant risk factor for both being a cyberbully and being a cyberbullying victim” (12 percent of 5th grade non-owners vs. 18 percent of phone owners said they’d been a cyberbully) – something that parents who are considering buying their young children cellphones will want to be aware of, MARC suggests. But it adds that “traditional in-school bullying was far more common that cyberbullying.” I suggest that the focus of family discussion about this be more on how to be a friend whether or not technology’s involved.

Whether positive or negative (and certainly mostly positive), sociality, play, and media-producing and -sharing are not only one big mashup for kids, all the activity also moves fluidly from device to device and from offline to online – and changes fluidly as individual kids and peer groups change.

How ‘cyberbullying’ was defined for the kids

Because even adults, including risk prevention experts, haven’t entirely agreed on the definition of “cyberbullying,” I asked MARC’s director, Prof. Elizabeth Englander at Bridgewater State University, how they interviewed kids about it.

“You can’t use complex language with 8-year-olds,” she wrote me. “So we asked them if anyone online had said or done anything that was very mean and that really hurt or bothered them. Then we asked if this had happened only once or if the person had done this or similar things to them more than once. We included only the kids who told us that it really bothered them and that it happened more than once.”

Here are some other key findings in MARC’s study:

  • Both bullying and cyberbullying increased from Grade 3 to Grade 5. “Just being a victim actually decreased from 3rd to 5th grade, but the number of children who both bully and are victims (“bully/victims”) increased from 15 percent in 3rd grade to 21 percent in 5th.
  • As kids move up in grade level, the anonymity of the bullying decreases. In 3rd grade, 72 percent of cyberbullying victims said they didn’t know who the bully was, but the percentage went down to 64 percent by 5th grade (a trend that “continues through high school,” MARC reported).
  • One-time meanness more common than the repeated kind: For both bullies and victims, “experiencing one episode of bullying is more common than experiencing bullying repeatedly,” MARC said, which suggests to the researchers that “efforts to control bullying may often be successful. It is also possible that many children learn, from one episode, how to avoid future episodes.”
  • Children reported problems more. “Between 2010 and 2012, children were increasingly likely to claim that they had reported cyberbullying.” Reporting to adults and peers increased similarly, which suggests to MARC that prevention education “appears to be successfully increasing the rate at which children report cyberbullying.”
  • Prevention education works. MARC found that kids were getting better at recognizing cyberbullying for what it is. “The proportion of children who could not define cyberbullying declined from 24 percent in 2010 to 10 percent 
in 2012. Non-bullies were more likely than bullies to report that their class had been offered education about bullying and cyberbullying (especially among fifth graders). Children who were repeatedly mean online reported the lowest level of education.”

Teaching children how to “recognize, report and refuse bullying,” as the bullying prevention and social literacy experts at Committee for Children in Seattle put it, is essential to reducing bullying in school and media environments. But what experts worldwide are seeing and voicing more and more is that social-emotional learning (SEL) – teaching our children how to detect and manage their own emotions and make good social decisions is the bedrock. Educators in Illinois certainly understand this, since in 2004, their state was the first to adopt SEL into its academic standards. Teacher Tontaneshia Jones of Chicago’s Ella Flagg Young School calls SEL “problem-solving with dignity,” as I wrote here, but its positive impact goes well beyond even social problem-solving to improving academic performance and a number of other factors for students and schools (see this).

The lion’s share of bullying prevention is social-emotional literacy. It gives kids (all of us, really) the self- and other-awareness and respect that encourages, gives courage, and provides the skills to thrive in communities online and offline, report unacceptable behavior, and stand up for those who need help.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at

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