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Online bullying: Still way less common than in real life

In fact, a new study reports that teens mostly find their peers being "kind to one another" on social networks.

In person bullying is more prevalent than any form of cyberbullying
Pew Internet & American Life Project

A new study entitled Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Networks confirms much of what we already know about cyberbullying. Most kids aren't bullied and most kids don't bully either online or off.

In fact, the study--conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project for the Family Online Safety Institute and Cable in the Classroom--concluded that "[m]ost American teens who use social media say that in their experience, people their age are mostly kind to one another on social network sites." Nearly seven in ten (69 percent) of teens said that peers are mostly kind while 20 percent said peers are mostly unkind with 11 percent saying, "it depends."

Fifteen percent of teens say they have been the "target of online meanness." When you include in-person encounters, 19 percent say they've been "bullied" in the past year.

These numbers track very closely with previous scientific surveys on bullying and cyberbullying. The largest source of bullying (12 percent) was in person, followed by text messaging (9 percent). Eight percent said they had been bullied via email, a social networking site or instant messaging and 7 percent were bullied via voice calls on the phone. Girls are more likely to have experienced what we typically call "cyberbullying," while boys and girls are roughly equal when it comes to in person bullying.

And lest you think this is only a youth problem, 13 percent of social-media-using adults said that someone had been mean to them in the past year. That's only two percent fewer than teen respondents.

The survey was conducted April through July, 2011 via by landline and cell phone. Researchers spoke, in English or Spanish, with 799 teens ages 12-17 and a parent or guardian. To help get high enough numbers for meaningful results, Black and Latino families were oversampled, but proportionately adjusted when included in the overall results. Depending on the sub-sample, the margin of error is between 5 and 6 percent.

Race, age and gender differences
There are differences between ages, genders and races. Among youth who use social media, younger teenage girls (12-13) are much more likely to say that people are mostly unkind. A third (33 percent) of these girls say people their age are mostly unkind to one another on social network sites, compared with 9 percent of boys their age and 18 percent of boys 14-17.

The survey found that Black teens "are less likely than white and Latino users to report that people their age are mostly kind online." Only 56 percent of blacks say that people are usually kind on social networking sites compared to 72 percent of whites and 78 percent of Latino youth. The study offered no explanation for these differences.

Teens between 14 and 17 are more likely (71 percent) to say they "have felt good about themselves because of a social network site experience," then younger ones (50 percent). It's interesting to note that "Teens with more public online profiles more often reported feeling good about themselves because of a social media moment."

The survey found that teens from lower-income households (less than $50,000 annually) "are more likely than higher-income teens to report getting in trouble at school because of an experience on a social network site (10 percent compared with 3 percent)."

Fully 88 percent of teens say they have witnessed or experienced "someone being mean or cruel online," but it's very important to distinguish this number from those who have experienced it or who have been mean themselves. It's very common for people to report that they've seen others behave badly even if they haven't experienced it or done so themselves. Still, only 12 percent reported seeing this frequently. The biggest group (47 percent) said they saw it "only once in awhile," followed by 29 percent "sometimes" and 11 percent"never." Among adults, 69 percent said they saw this type of behavior.

Bystanders and Upstanders
There is a lot of talk about the role of peers in helping to stop bullying and, from the data, it's clear that a significant percentage of kids are stepping in when they see someone else being mistreated online. While 55 percent of teens say that their peers who witnessed cruel behavior typically ignore it, 27 percent said they "frequently see others defend the victim," while 20 percent said they "frequently see others tell the person being mean to stop." Nearly a fifth (19 percent) said they frequently see others join in the harassment.

Kids that "ignore" mistreatment of others aren't necessarily being insensitive. Whether right or not, there is a widespread belief that the best way to handle bullying is to ignore it.