Online bullying is on the rise among middle and high school students, even as overall rates of bullying in schools have remained steady, according to a new federal report.
One out of five students between ages 12 and 18 were bullied during the 2016-2017 school year, according to the report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the research arm of the Education Department. Among those students who faced bullying, 15% said they were bullied online or by text, a 3.5 percentage-point jump from the 2014-2015 school year.
The report did not indicate why online bullying is increasing, and students were not asked about the websites or social media networks used as conduits for bullying. But Rachel Hansen, a project officer for the National Center for Education Statistics, said the information can help guide efforts to curb bullying.
"This can help schools and communities determine where to target their bullying-prevention strategies," she said, noting that bullying has declined overall in the past decade.
Kathryn Seigfried-Spellar, an associate professor in Purdue University's department of computer and information technology, said the reported increase could stem from a greater willingness to report online bullying or a deeper awareness among students.
Seigfried-Spellar said students become less inhibited with digital separation because they don't have to witness the emotional toll exacted by bullying or deal with the immediate consequences. "It's easier to do something because you don't have to worry about a physical repercussion," she said. "It removes that personal experience."
Bullying can lead to emotional distress and self-harm and has apparently led to suicide. It can also put a young person at higher risk for depression, anxiety and lower academic achievement, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2017, a 12-year-old in New Jersey killed herself after her family said she was taunted on Instagram and Snapchat and bullied in school. The same year, a 10-year-old from Aurora, Colo., died by suicide after her family said a video of a schoolyard fight between her and another student was posted online and the girl was bullied.
According to the federal report, students who reported being bullied online varied by gender, race and grade level.
Girls were more frequent victims — 21% of girls who reported being bullied were targeted online or by text, compared with 7% of boys, data show. More white students, 17%, reported being bullied online, compared with 12% of students of other races. And a higher percentage of high school students reported online bullying than middle school students.
Most bullying, including being insulted, threatened or excluded from activities, still happens in person. Among students who reported being bullied, 42% said they were targeted in a classroom, and 43% said they were victimized in a hallway or stairwell. Students could report being bullied in more than one location.