A recent psychology study published by Cixin Wang, an assistant professor in UCR’s Graduate School of Education, and other researchers discovered that physical and verbal bullying decrease, while cyberbullying increases, as students age. The study also disputed previous studies that English language learners (ELL) were bullied more often than native English speakers.

Working with data collected from 1,180 fifth- through eighth-grade students in the U.S., the study showed that within a one-year period, traditional bullying (verbal and physical) decreased from 29 percent to 18 percent and cyberbullying increased from 10.3 percent to 12.8 percent from 2005-2006.

The study examined bullying on two levels by identifying victims (people who are bullied) and perpetrators (those who commit the bullying), and tracking whether participants transitioned between categories over time. In addition to addressing the differences between perpetrator and victim, the study also looked at how gender played a role in bullying. Males were more likely to be physically victimized, while females were more likely to encounter verbal and cyber victimization.

Wang’s team found that the transition from fifth to sixth grade saw an increase in perpetrators, from 5 percent in fifth grade to 16 percent the next year. This increase was in cyberbullying while traditional bullying decreased.

In explaining this increase, Wang said, “We think that students become more involved in bullying perpetration possibly to gain higher social status in the new environment after school transition.” Since fifth to sixth grade marks a transition from elementary to middle school, many students may feel pressure to be accepted into a new social climate.

In an effort to help decrease bullying and improve social climate, Wang states that this transition period is critical for intervention. “Considering the unique pattern during school transitions, carefully designed interventions should target the new sixth graders as they adjust to the larger middle school environment and to new peer groups,” Wang emphasized.

The increase in cyberbullying may also be due to the lack of detection. “Subtle forms of bullying (e.g., cyberbullying) in general are less likely to be detected by adults and less likely to be punished,” Wang explained. The UCR assistant professor also said regulating students’ online usage and informing students about cyber safety as important factors for the prevention of cyber victimization.

Wang and her teams also stressed the importance that schools should recognize all forms of bullying in a way that is gender and culturally sensitive. As Wang told UCR Today, “School-based interventions need to address the differences in perpetrator and victim experiences; the key is to use individualized specific interventions for bullying, not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Fourth-year psychology major at UCR, Kimberly Orellan, also supports the prevailing view that a student’s online usage should be reduced, but expressed her own views on cyberbullying prevention. “I think students can take measures to protect themselves from cyberbullying, if they stopped relying so heavily on social media,” Orellan said.

The research paper was a collaboration between Wang, Professor Jin Hoon Ryoo from the University of Virginia and Professor Susan M. Swearer from the University of Nebraska.