The COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and forced students into online education, causing widespread worry among parents and educators that an increase in cyberbullying would follow. But that increase never materialized, reports a new study by Andrew Bacher-Hicks, Ed.M’14, assistant professor of education at Boston University, and co-authors Joshua Goodman, Jennifer Greif Green, and Melissa Holt. In fact, bullying and cyberbullying rates, measured by the frequency of online searches for bullying-related terms, actually dropped during the pandemic. We caught up with Bacher-Hicks to learn why.
Tell us about the study. What inspired it?
The study looks at the effect that COVID had on bullying and cyberbullying. We were motivated to look into this for two reasons. The first was that bullying and cyberbullying are really common phenomena. One in five high school students reports being bullied in person every year, and one in six reports being bullied online. The second is that a large amount of research has shown that bullying is associated with a range of mental and physical consequences, including anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. In fact, some studies even show that bullying has long-run physical, mental, and economic effects that persist after the bullying has stopped, into adulthood.
We wanted to look into bullying during COVID in particular because, after the massive shift from in-person instruction to online learning in March of 2020, there was a lot of concern that cyberbullying might increase (since students were spending more time online). We wanted to see if that increase had indeed come to pass.
How did the study work?
We used Google search trends in this study, for two purposes:
First, we looked at historical Google search trend data from before the pandemic to figure out whether or not Google search trends for words like “bullying” or “cyberbullying” actually predict bullying behavior. Linking historical search popularity for those terms with survey responses from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, we provided clear evidence that increases in internet searches for bullying historically predicted higher reported rates of bullying.
Then, we tracked Google searches for “bullying” and “cyberbullying” during the periods directly before and after schools closed in March 2020. We also tracked search frequency during the summer of 2020 and into the fall of the 2020–21 school year.
What did you find?
The main result was that both bullying and cyberbullying searches dropped dramatically (by 30 to 40%) in months immediately following school closures. We also found that, for schools that remained remote in the fall of 2020, decreases in both in-person bullying and cyberbullying persisted.
When we looked at schools that remained fully remote versus schools that offered in-person instruction for the 2020–2021 school year, we found that the drops in bullying were concentrated among schools that remained fully remote. This is consistent with the idea that shifting to remote schooling was an important mechanism that drove down the rates of both bullying and cyberbullying.
Interestingly, even in schools that shifted back to in-person instruction, we found that in-person bullying and cyberbullying did not fully return to pre-pandemic levels.
Why do you think that is?
There were likely some differences between the fall of 2020 and past falls. For schools that returned to some in-person instruction in the fall of 2020, bullying rates may have been lower than historical patterns because those schools had lower rates of in-person attendance. Just because a school offered in-person instruction doesn’t mean all students accepted it.
Another possible reason is that even if everybody did return for in-person learning, there were additional structures in place. Prior literature has found that bullying tends to happen during unstructured time — when students are passing in the hallways, at recess, during lunchtime. With COVID precautions, in-person schools had less unstructured time, meaning there may have been fewer opportunities for in-person bullying to occur.
What about cyberbullying rates? Why might those have initially dropped and, in schools that returned to in-person learning, remained lower?
This gets into one of the most surprising results of this study. It was not surprising to me or my co-authors that in-person bullying dropped, but it was surprising to us that cyberbullying dropped.
Our study didn’t examine this question directly, but it might be the case that there is a link between in-school interactions and online interactions. Prior research shows that the same individuals are often involved both in cyberbullying and in-person bullying. Some instances of bullying, therefore, may start in person and then shift online. If these in person interactions are disrupted, then the spillover onto online bullying may also be disrupted.
What do these findings mean for educators and families?
They suggest a few things. The first is that we, as families, educators, and policymakers, do not have to accept high rates of bullying. The pandemic has shown us that bullying rates can change quite dramatically. Second, this research suggests that we may be able to identify effective strategies implemented during pandemic to decrease bullying rates in the future. For example, school leaders might think carefully about unstructured time in a school day, how those student interactions have differed during the pandemic, and if any of the additional structure introduced during the pandemic would be useful to offer moving forward.
Finally, I think a lot of research on the educational effects of COVID-19 has focused on negative consequences — things like learning loss, student achievement, and anxiety. It’s certainly crucial that we document these harmful effects, but this study suggests that there are at least some aspects of students’ learning experiences that may have improved. Highlighting the decrease in pandemic-era bullying allows us to see the shift to remote as not entirely harmful. This is important to remember, as there might be other benefits we can learn about from the shift.