A Glimmer of Hope in the Shadow of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Researchers Find a Decrease in both In-Person and Online Bullying
In a new study, education researchers say rates of both in-person and cyberbullying declined throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
When schools across the country were forced to shutter their doors during the spring of 2020, parents, educators, and students alike were left with an abundance of pandemic-related questions, and growing fears. What tools or technology would teachers use to connect with their classrooms virtually? How would parents oversee their children’s coursework while simultaneously managing their own work responsibilities? Would the overall quality of education suffer? How would students’ relationships with their peers be affected?
Approximately two years later, as answers to many of these questions are still being heavily debated, Boston University researchers within the Wheelock College of Education & Human Development became interested in examining the uncertainties pertaining to the pandemic’s effect on in-person and online bullying. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in five school-aged children have experienced bullying at school, and as technology use has expanded to more young people, so have the effects of cyberbullying. Is this also true in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, as students logged into their virtual classrooms? The research team was ready to find out.
Co-led by Dr. Andrew Bacher Hicks, Dr. Joshua Goodman, Dr. Jennifer Greif Green, and Dr. Melissa K. Holt, the new study released by the Wheelock Educational Policy Center, analyzed Google search trends to determine how bullying affected school-aged children throughout the pandemic. We followed up with Dr. Bacher-Hicks about the findings and the implications this research could have for the future of education in a post-pandemic world.
What are the main takeaways from this study?
There are two key takeaways. First, we establish that internet searches for “bullying” and “cyberbullying” are predictive of actual bullying victimization. While we are the first to show that Google searches predict bullying, this adds to the accumulating evidence that internet search behavior can provide useful, real-time information that has traditionally been collected via surveys.
Then, we used the real-time Google search data to track bullying as schools went remote in response to the Covid pandemic. We found that searches for both bullying and cyberbullying dropped by about 35 percent directly following the shift to remote schooling in March 2020.
Were you also able to examine what happened when schools began re-opening for in-person instruction in the Fall of 2020?
The Fall 2020 semester offered a nice research opportunity because some schools re-opened for in-person learning while others remained remote. We found that searches for bullying and cyberbullying both remained below typical levels no matter what learning mode was offered. However, searches for both forms of bullying were substantially lower in schools that remained remote. This result provided additional evidence that schooling mode is related to bullying.
Was there any element of the research findings that surprised you? Why or why not?
Absolutely. We embarked on this project because there was substantial concern — by parents, educators and in the media — that cyberbullying would skyrocket as schools shifted to remote instruction. Given these legitimate concerns, I was surprised that we found substantial declines in cyberbullying during the pandemic. I think that this finding highlights the close link between in-person bullying and cyberbullying. In particular, it shows that when in-person interactions are disrupted, both forms of bullying decline.
Are the effects of cyberbullying different compared to types of bullying that occurs in-person?
It’s difficult to examine the separate effects of cyberbullying and in-person bullying. That’s because the same individuals are often involved in both types of bullying. That said, a large body of literature links both forms of bullying to a wide range of harmful short-term and long-run outcomes. And growing concerns about cyberbullying are certainly well-founded as technology and social media have become seamlessly integrated into our daily routines.
What research methods did you use to measure how COVID-19 disrupted bullying?
There were two steps to our analysis. First, we compared historical Google search data to national survey data on bullying in the pre-pandemic world. This analysis established that internet searches for bullying are strong predictors of actual bullying victimization. Then, we used real-time Google search data to compare searches for bullying just after schools closed in March 2020 to searches for bullying just before schools closed. This method — called an event study analysis — relies on the high-frequency data that is available through internet search trends.
From your perspective, is analyzing Google search trends a research method with the potential to become the wave of the future?
There are some clear benefits to using Google search data for social science research. For example, it’s particularly useful for tracking real-time trends. In this case, the pandemic evolved so rapidly — and demanded quick policy responses — that real-time analysis was crucial. That said, there are also limitations to Google search data. For example, these data offer less detail than traditional surveys. We don’t know who is doing the search or why. In short, I think that both forms of data — Google searches and traditional surveys — offer valuable and unique information.
What steps can parents, educators, etc. take to prevent in-person and cyberbullying in a post-pandemic world?
While this study was not designed to offer specific recommendations, I’ll share two thoughts. First, by highlighting the link between in-person interactions and both forms of bullying, future cyberbullying prevention strategies may want to focus not only on online interactions, but also in-person interactions. Second, our finding that bullying declined even in the schools that re-opened in fall of 2020 suggests that the additional measures to prevent the spread of Covid in schools may have also reduced bullying. For example, there was less unstructured time in the Fall of 2020, which is when bullying tends to occur. This suggests that there’s something that we can learn about how providing additional structure during the school day can reduce bullying moving forward.
For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow Dr. Andrew Bacher-Hicks on Twitter at @abacherhicks, Dr. Melissa Holt at @MKHolt10, Dr. Jennifer Greif Green at @jgreen_bu, and Dr. Joshua Goodman at @JoshuaSGoodman. For research updates from the Wheelock College of Education & Human Development and from the Wheelock Educational Policy Center, follow @BUWheelock and @wheelock_policy.