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expert reaction to cyberbullying and adolescent well-being

A new study published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health suggests that cyberbullying comes second to traditional bullying, and that the latter causes more harm.


Prof. Louise Arseneault, Professor in Developmental Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London (IoPPN), said:

“The important message from this study is that cyber victimisation happens rarely in isolation.  Youths most at risk of experiencing bad outcomes following the experience of victimisation have usually experienced different types of victimisation, and often in the context of different environments (e.g. at home, at school, at sports clubs etc.).  This study shows that cyber victimisation could be a marker for other forms of victimisation but in itself conveys only small risk for lower wellbeing and mental health problems.  Cyber victimisation may offer new opportunities to teach youth how to tackle bullying on- and offline.  It is also important to remember the benefits of new technology and that monitoring is important, especially among young children.

“It also brings a new perspective on the public perception that cyber victimisation is epidemic and worse than traditional forms of bullying.

“This is an important and strong study.  It does have certain limitations, such as that the study is cross-sectional; it didn’t control for adult maltreatment and neglect; and didn’t control for prior symptoms of mental health or low well-being – but despite this, the conclusions from this research are important and fill an important gap in the literature on the impact of bullying and other forms of victimisation.”


Prof. Shirley Reynolds, Director of the Charlie Waller Institute, University of Reading, said:

“This is a very impressive and well-conducted survey.   Over 110,000 young people aged 15 years and living in England answered questions about their experience of bullying and about their well-being. This is around 1/5th of all 15 year olds who were living in England at the time of the study. The researchers chose well-established measures of bullying and well-being which young people completed themselves.

“The ‘headline’ result of this study is that cyberbullying was much less common than traditional bullying (e.g. name calling, physical bullying, being excluded).  Around a quarter (27%) said they were bullied in traditional ways compared with fewer than 3% who reported cyberbullying.   In addition, almost everyone who reported cyberbullying also reported being bullied in traditional ways –  fewer than 1% of young people reported cyberbullying only (I.e. they didn’t report traditional bullying). This suggests that cyberbullying simply adds another method to the bully’s arsenal and that the same children are likely to be bullied, regardless of the method used.

“Girls were more likely than boys to report all types of bullying except physical bullying.  Bullying, especially traditional bullying was associated with poorer well-being and life satisfaction.

“As this study is a survey conducted at a single time point it is not possible to make any claims about the causes of bullying or to say if bullying (or cyberbullying) is increasing.

“The association between bullying and poorer well-being is unsurprising but it is not possible to state if bullying reduces well-being or if young people who have poorer well-being are more likely to be bullied by others or if bullying and well-being are both influenced by another independent variable.

“This study was not able to address many possible confounders or independent variables that might increase bullying and reduce well-being.  There were small associations between being in a minority ethnic group and material deprivations although these were not discussed in the paper.   The data suggest that young people who identified as belonging to a minority ethnic group were slightly less likely to be bullied and that young people from more deprived backgrounds were slightly more likely to be bullied. Possible confounding variables include minority status (of any kind including sexuality) and physical and/ or mental ill health.

“These caveats however, do not undermine the headline result.   Young people reported cyberbullying to be comparatively rare and almost always in combination with traditional bullying.  This is in direct and stark contradiction to the widespread assumption that cyberbullying is a common experience of young people.  Parents, teachers and young people themselves may find this reassuring (and probably surprising).

“In practical terms the results of this study suggest that bullying is common and that young people who say they are being bullied also report poorer well-being and life satisfaction.  Cyberbullying is relatively rare.  Very few young people (fewer than 1%) report being cyberbullied but not being bullied in any other ways.  Therefore much more attention should be directed at reducing all types of bullying and in helping young people who are being bullied to deal with this effectively – regardless of the method.”


* ‘Cyberbullying and adolescent well-being in England: a population-based cross-sectional study’ by Przybylski et al. published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health on Tuesday 11th July.


Declared interests

Prof. Arseneault: “I am the ESRC Mental Health Leadership Fellow.”

Prof. Reynolds: “My post at the University of Reading is partly funded by the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust and Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust. I am co-director of the Oxford Academic Health Science Network Anxiety and Depression programme.  I have received grant funding for research from NIHR and MRC.”

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