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Cyber Bullying Affects One in 10 Students

But researchers find supportive parents help keep abusive behaviors at bay

MONDAY, June 29 (HealthDay News) -- Bullying still makes life miserable for plenty of students, only these days some aggressors apparently operate electronically.

A new study shows that many children in grades 6 through 10 have either bullied classmates or been bullied by them, sometimes online or through cell phones.

The study by the National Institutes of Health, released online June 29 in the Journal of Adolescent Medicine, analyzed data from the World Health Organization's 2005/2006 survey of human behavior in school-aged children.

According to the study, 20.8 percent of respondents reported being perpetrators or victims of physical bullying in the past two months; 53.6 percent were victims of verbal bullying; 51.4 percent were victims of relational bullying, which involves social exclusion, and 13.6 percent of cyber bullying on a computer, cell phone or other electronic device.

"Bullying definitely remains prevalent and seems to peak in middle school," said study author Ronald Iannotti, staff psychologist at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "Middle school years are difficult."

The study did not look for an increase or decrease in school bullying over the years, but some experts believe the rate has stayed stable or even declined over the past decade. The study is one of the first to examine the recent phenomenon of cyber bullying.

The authors defined physical bullying as hitting, kicking, pushing, shoving and locking a classmate indoors. Verbal bullying included calling someone mean names, making fun or teasing in a hurtful way and saying mean things about a person's race or religion. The researchers defined relational bullying as spreading rumors or socially excluding others.

The study revealed these trends:

  • Verbal bullying was the most prevalent of the four major forms of bullying.
  • Boys are more likely to be involved in physical and verbal bullying.
  • Girls are more likely to spread rumors and ostracize a victim.
  • Bullying tends to decline as children get older, with the bulk of bullying taking place in middle school, especially seventh and eighth grades.
  • Compared with whites, black adolescents were more likely to be bullies, and less likely to be victims.
  • Hispanics were more involved in physical bullying than whites but more likely to suffer cyber bullying.

How many friends a child has plays a big part in determining hostile behavior, the researchers said. For physical, verbal and relational abuse, kids with lots of friends are at higher risk of becoming bullies. Conversely, those with fewer friends are victims more often.

"This may reflect a need among adolescents to establish social status, especially during transition into a new group," the study said. "Friendship protects adolescents from being selected as targets of bullies."

Cyber bullying -- bullying through a computer or other communication device -- is still a small phenomenon. Researchers found that 8 percent had received harassing computer pictures or messages, and 6 percent were bullied by cell phone. More boys were cyber bullies; more girls were cyber victims.

The size of the children's social circle did not affect their involvement in electronic bullying. However, affluence seems to increase the risk, possibly because of the greater availability of computers and cell phones in wealthier families.

"There's been a lot of recent emphasis on cyber bullying, but the fact is that there is a lot less of it than in-person bullying," said Frederick Zimmerman, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Public Health. "Parents can certainly help by being aware of what their kids are doing alone in their rooms."

While no foolproof way exists to stop middle-school bullying, the researchers concluded that good parental support helps children avoid abusive behavior. Parents serve as role models, good and bad, Iannotti said. Furthermore, kids who come from loving homes and feel good about themselves are less likely to want to harass someone and are less likely to appear weak to potential bullies.

Zimmerman said parents should be on the lookout for signs of bullying and victimization, but initially they should not overreact.

"Most kids shrug off [bullying] and bounce back," he added.

More information

Visit the National Institutes of Health for more on bullying.

SOURCE: Ronald Iannotti, staff psychologist, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Rockville, Md.; Frederick Zimmerman, associate professor, University of California, Los Angeles, School of Public Health; June 29, 2009, Journal of Adolescent Health, online

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