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Cyberbullying and Bullying Are Not the Same

Update Date: Apr 14, 2012 12:24 AM EDT

Dynamics of online bullying are different from those of traditional bullying, requiring specific interventions, according to a new study.

A research comparing traditional bullying with cyberbullying shows that the dynamics of online bullying are different, suggesting that anti-bullying programs need specific interventions to target online aggression.

"There are currently many programs aimed at reducing bullying in schools and I think there is an assumption that these programs deal with cyberbullying as well," says Jennifer Shapka, an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at University of British Columbia.

"What we're seeing is that kids don't equate cyberbullying with traditional forms of schoolyard bullying. As such, we shouldn't assume that existing interventions will be relevant to aggression that is happening online." 

Shapka conducted a study that involved 17,000 Vancouver, B.C. students in Grades 8 to 12 and a follow-up study involving 733 Vancouver, B.C. youth aged 10-18.

Results of the studies show that about 25-30 percent of participants say that they have experienced or taken part in cyberbullying, compared to 12 percent of youth who report they've experienced or taken part in schoolyard bullying. 

However, Youth say that 95 percent of what happens online was intended as a joke and only 5 percent was intended to harm. "It is clear that youth are underestimating the level of harm associated with cyberbullying," says the researcher. The findings suggest that in cyberbullying adolescents "downplay the impact of it, which means that existing education and prevention programs are not going to get through to them."

Traditional bullying is often associated with three main characteristics: a power differential between bully and victim, a proactive targeting of a victim, and ongoing aggression.

Shapka says, research is beginning to show that cyberbullying does not necessarily involve these three characteristics. Traditional power differentials - size and popularity - do not necessarily apply online. There also seems to be more fluid delineation between the roles youth play; it is not unusual for an individual to act in all capacities - bullies, victims, and witnesses - online.

Previous work by Shapka and her colleagues has shown that in contrast to traditional bullying, cyberbullying is rarely associated with planned targeting of a victim.

Being victimized online can have consequences for a person's mental health, developmental wellbeing, and academic achievement, according to Shapka. In extreme cases, there have been reports of suicide.

"Students need to be educated that this 'just joking' behaviour has serious implications," says Shapka.

She is presenting this research at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting in Vancouver. 

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