Bullying in a Networked Era: A Literature Review


This research update presents an aggregation and summary of recent academic literature on youth bullying. The purpose of this document is to “translate” scholarly research for a concerned public audience, which may include but is not limited to parents, caregivers, educators, and practitioners. This translation highlights recent findings and developments in the literature and makes them accessible to the informed but non-expert reader. 

The document’s two guiding questions are “What is bullying?” (Section I) and “What can be done about bullying?” (Section II). Section I begins with a brief overview of key definitions and related research conversations and then addresses bullying’s prevalence, the types of individuals involved in bullying, the characteristics of individuals involved and the consequences of their involvement, and community-level dynamics related to bullying. Section II covers four areas where action has been taken to address problems associated with bullying – school policy, curricula, school climate, and parents – and ends on a note about approaches that mix or cut across these areas. The purpose is to render lessons learned from research and assessment accessible to those interested in deepening or expanding their knowledge of bullying-related issues. 

Both the online and offline contexts in which bullying occurs are the focuses of this research update. In research as well as popular discourse, bullying has been segmented into “cyberbullying” and “traditional bullying.” Although the medium or means through which bullying takes place influence bullying dynamics, online and offline bullying are more similar than different. This dynamic is especially true as a result of the increasing convergence of technologies. Looking broadly at the commonalities as well as the differences between offline and online phenomena fosters greater understanding of the overall system of which each is a part and highlights both the off- and on-line experiences of young people – whose involvement is not typically limited to one end of the spectrum. 

This document uses “traditional bullying” and “offline bullying” interchangeably, as it does “cyberbullying” and “online bullying.” The second pair of terms are used to refer to bullying that occurs through information and communication technologies (ICTs) generally, which includes using mobile phones for phone calls and texting. The document tries to indicate when reviewed studies differentiate between bullying occurring only through the Internet, or through other technologies as well, in their analyses. However, with the increasing convergence of technologies, mobile phones used by youth more frequently include Internet access, which at times can make it hard to distinguish between Internet use and mobile phone use. 

The authors acknowledge that bullying represents just one part of the broader canvas of peer victimization and harassment for young people (e.g., fighting, sexual harassment, dating violence, etc.) and is related to other forms of bias-based discrimination (e.g., sexism, racism, heterosexism, gender normativity, discrimination based on ability levels, etc.). Notably, Finkelhor, Turner, and Hamby (2012) briefly review, but also challenge, the paradigm of separating bullying from peer victimization, proposing an alternative framework to better integrate the two. Other studies consider the two alongside or in relation to one another while noting definitional differences (e.g., Hong & Espelage, 2012). However, the distinct focus on bullying in this document offers fresh perspective on a term that has captured much public attention and the ways the term has informed and guided action. The review process focused on studies published between 2008 and 2012 but also included some earlier, influential studies. It also focused primarily on U.S.-based data and young people from around the ages of American middle school to high school. However, some international data are included from certain notable studies, especially those that address narrower subtopics or notably contribute to theoretical or conceptual conversations. The document’s scope is multi-disciplinary, drawing mainly from child and developmental psychology, education, criminology, public health, pediatrics, and Internet studies. With translation as the goal, the review sought to first establish common reference points among different bodies of research, using primary studies along with meta-analyses that aggregate and analyze other research findings to address large-scale or generalizable trends. At times, especially when comparing research definitions or changes in the field over time, the review draws on reviews or book chapters to provide summaries of themes and definitions. 

The document’s format is built around two levels of summaries that present important research findings. At the start of each numbered section, the research findings are summarized in an italicized paragraph. Shorter summary statements follow, which are supported by bulleted data points drawn from the literature. However, the authors do not attempt to arbitrate between conflicting or disputed research findings. Wherever possible, the authors qualify which findings are inconclusive or under debate and which have achieved some expert consensus. 

Most important, this document is not intended to stand alone. Rather, it seeks to serve as a readers’ introduction to a rich and growing body of research literature on online and offline bullying. Reviewing the citations used in supporting evidence and referring to the reference list provides the reader with a baseline of knowledge on bullying research and multiple, vetted entry points for further exploration.

Nathaniel Levy
Sandra Cortesi
Urs Gasser
Edward Crowley
Meredith Beaton
June Casey
Caroline Nolan

Paper is protected under the terms outlined on the SSRN Terms of Use.

Publication Date: 
September 12, 2012