How Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Bullying?

Bullying During the COVID-19 Pandemic

How Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Bullying?

One of the questions we have been asked most often over the last 18 months is whether bullying has gotten better or worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, there was a concern that cyberbullying incidents in particular would increase as youth were spending more time online.

Additionally, many young children were perhaps given premature access to technology with inadequate support or supervision as schools hurriedly moved to virtual educational activities and parents simply needed to survive the extended time children had at home.

On the other hand, we have long known that bullying online is often connected to bullying at school and therefore fewer students at schools might translate to fewer problems online.

Despite these speculations, however, I’ve mostly had to respond to the question about bullying during the pandemic by saying that we simply don’t know.

Recently, though, initial research has emerged to provide some insight about the nature and extent of bullying behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And we also collected data about bullying during the pandemic that we are now able to share.

COVID-19 Bullying Research

There have been at least three studies that have attempted to assess whether the pandemic had an impact on bullying among adolescents.

First, Tracy Vaillancourt and her colleagues from the University of Ottawa and elsewhere examined bullying (general, physical, verbal, social, and cyber) before and during the COVID-19 pandemic among a sample of about 6,500 Canadian students. They found that school bullying was much higher among students in grades 4 through 12 before the start of the pandemic.

Specifically, nearly 60% of students said they had been bullied prior to the pandemic compared to about 40% during the pandemic. Cyberbullying, on the other hand, only decreased marginally (13.8% pre-COVID to 11.5% during COVID).

Second, researchers at Boston University analyzed Google internet searches for bullying and cyberbullying and found that searches for these terms on that site dropped 30-40% when schools went to remote learning in the spring of 2020.

This reduced level of inquiry about these problems continued into the 2020-2021 school year, though began to increase once schools began to re-open their doors in the spring of 2021.

Researchers speculated that decreases in online searches for bullying correlated to reductions in the behaviors.

Finally, an analysis of keywords related to cyberbullying (e.g.

, “cyberbullying,” “cyberbully,” “internet bullying”) on in the early months of the pandemic showed an uptick in the frequency of these terms immediately following school closings and stay-at-home orders.

It is uncertain whether these terms were tweeted as a means of identification of actual incidents of bullying online, or for some other reason.

Taken as a whole, each of these studies sheds some light on the problem of bullying during the COVID-19 pandemic, though each has its own limitations. In particular, analyses of Google searches and keywords are especially tenuous in their insights about actual bullying incidents (especially because the studies returned conflicting results).

Our COVID-19 Bullying Research

Sameer and I have been regularly collecting data on bullying and cyberbullying in the United States since 2004, most recently in the summer of 2021 (more on this latest project in a subsequent post).

If we focus just on our last three studies, all of which are relatively large (2,500-4,700 participants) nationally-representative samples collected in 2016, 2019, and 2021 using the same methodology and identical instrument, we can evaluate some recent trends in bullying and cyberbullying behaviors over that time period.

For example, in the spring of 2021, 22.6% of students said they had been bullied at school in the previous 30 days, compared to 51.4% in 2019 and 37.8% in 2016. A similarly steep drop was observed in self-reported school bullying offending behaviors in 2021.

In 2016 and 2019, about 11-12% admitted that they had bullied others at school compared to 6.8% in 2021. In short, school bullying behaviors have undoubtedly dropped during the pandemic.

When it came to cyberbullying, however, the findings were less clear. More students reported that they had experienced recent cyberbullying in 2021 (22.6%) compared to previous years (17.2% in 2019 and 16.7% in 2016), but fewer students reported that they had cyberbullied others (4.

9% in 2021 compared to 6.6% and 5.7% respectively in 2019 and 2016). It is also noteworthy that this is the first time in any of our studies that more students said they were bullied online than at school (though the difference was small [23.2% compared to 22.

6%] and not statistically significant).

In addition to asking adolescents in our 2021 study to report if they had been bullied or cyberbullied in the last 30 days, we also asked whether they had been bullied (or had bullied others) at school or online more or less since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When looking at responses to these questions we saw a similar pattern as observed above. That is, students overwhelmingly said that they had been bullied less at school since the start of the pandemic.

Only about 6% of students said they had been bullied more at school during the pandemic.

When it came to cyberbullying, most said they had been bullied online less or about the same as before, but about a quarter did report more cyberbullying during the pandemic. The same is generally true when we look at offending behaviors. The vast majority of students said they bullied or cyberbullied others less since the start of the pandemic.


So where does this leave us? Well, it is clear that the number of school bullying incidents dropped significantly during the pandemic. This is intuitive as fewer students were in schools generally and when they were many schools limited the number of students that could be in a particular classroom.

Fewer students ly meant more supervision and fewer opportunities for misbehavior. When it came to cyberbullying, however, the results were less conclusive. I think it is safe to say that cyberbullying did not increase significantly over the last 18 months, but it ly didn’t decrease either.

More youth are undoubtedly spending more time online, creating more opportunities for misbehavior.

It is clear that the number of school bullying incidents dropped significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I do think it is promising that the cyberbullying numbers weren’t even higher. Despite dire predictions, online bullying didn’t seem to surge the way some had expected.

It is possible that online conflict is occurring more often now than prior to the pandemic, but conflict isn’t always bullying.

There are plenty of angry, frustrated, and frankly ignorant people (more adults than youth, in my experience) expressing their outrage on the internet these days.

Social media comment wars are not necessarily bullying, but might be captured in some of the studies of keywords used in Google and on described above. Without context (such as knowing the relationship between the aggressor and target and whether the actions were intentionally hurtful and repeated over time) it is difficult to definitively determine if something posted online qualifies as bullying.

Another concern during the pandemic is whether students would have access to support if they were being bullied.

Without physically being at school it could be more difficult for students to visit with a counselor, social worker, or psychologist to report, work through, and obtain help with any issues they might be confronting (including bullying).

So even if overall bullying numbers are down, the consequences youth are facing because of these experiences could still be serious.

The other question on the minds of many is what is going to happen in the 2021-22 academic year? Most schools in my area are back to face-to-face instruction with few COVID-19 mitigation strategies (one local district is requiring masks, but none of the others are).

Will we see an increase in school-based or online bullying with students back in schools? I’m personally concerned because my tween son’s school is not requiring face coverings, even though there will be no physical distancing and most of his classmates are currently ineligible for vaccination. Per parental instruction, he is wearing a mask. Will he be bullied if he is the only student in his class wearing a mask? Suffice it to say that there continue to be plenty of opportunities for kids to be mean to each other as the pandemic continues. And they will persist long after the current situation subsides.

Top image from Kelly Sikkema (unsplash)


Cyberbullying Rises During COVID-19 Pandemic — The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab

How Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Bullying?

Updated on 10/06/21

The coronavirus pandemic has created many unexpected and unforeseen challenges for parents and their children across the nation.

Many schools closed and shifted learning online at the same time that non-essential businesses and activities shut down, increasing the amount of time many students spent online participating in digital activities.

While anxiety levels and depression may have peaked in April, bullying has only gotten worse.

Cyberbullying is when someone repeatedly harasses, mistreats or makes fun of another person online. This can be done using cell phones or other devices. There is an increased risk for cyberbullying to take place between children now due to restricted at-school contact and more time spent online.

Additionally, parents may be “exhausted” and they may lower their guard regarding what their child is doing online during non-school hours.

By the beginning of April, an AI company dedicated to monitoring hate speech online noted a 70% increase in the amount of hate speech among teens and children in online chats.

There can be several causes for cyberbullying to occur, including:

  • It’s a confidence booster for the bully.
  • Cyberbullying can be done anonymously.
  • It allows for socially inactive people to feel powerful and less weak.
  • Kids see it as a trend.
  • It serves as entertainment for kids who bully together.

Signs Your Child is Being Cyberbullied

Learning to identify the warning signs that your child may be getting bullied online can help you intervene early and prevent the situation from escalating. These signs include:

  • A decline in grades
  • Unexplainable injuries
  • Mental health symptoms depression, feeling helpless or decreased self-esteem
  • Changes in eating habits and/or sleep patterns
  • Increased physical symptoms headaches, stomach upset, etc
  • Avoiding school or peers
  • Demonstrating self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, self-harm, or talking about suicide.

Cyberbullying During Covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic has caused many teens and children to feel alone and control.

Being taken from their consistent daily routines and normal school environments has forced a “new normal” that includes increased time and activity online.

Being isolated from their friends, educators, peers and mentors can easily affect their confidence and drive. These factors can create a situation where kids can turn to or become the victim of cyberbullying.

According to Dr. Sameer Hinduja, the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University, there’s “now an almost limitless number of potential targets and aggressors”, meaning that it is critical for parents and educators to educate themselves on ways to intervene.

Tips for Parents

What can parents do to help their children?

  • Communicate with your kids and teens. Let them know they can trust you and come to you if they experience cyberbullying.
  • Understand the internet and how social media platforms operate and how to report abuse or inappropriate content.
  • Explain the effects of cyberbullying to your children.
  • Define and set your expectations for proper online behavior.
  • Place any home computers in the open.
  • Be creative in finding ways to connect with your children.
  • Practice patience, especially if your kids are expressing frustrations or are easily irritated. This may be their way of figuring out how to navigate their new reality.
  • Support your children using apps FaceTime, Skype or other video chat options to connect with their friends.
  • Encourage physical activity when/where possible.

Tips for Teachers

According to Dr. Hinduja, here are some tips for how teachers can keep an eye on their students:

  • In any online learning platform and environment, ensure that the rules and expectations are understood by all students immediately regarding appropriate and kind behavior towards others.
  • Establish a way to hold students accountable for their actions or any rule violations.
  • Make sure you are able to keep an eye on your students online interactions and encourage Upstander behavior among your students. This could be sending screenshots or proof of any violations of your rules and expectations.
  • Set a precedent, if possible, and be a positive role model and influence on your students.
  • Make sure to reinforce any and all positive peer interactions that occur in online settings.
  • Most importantly, continue to be there for your students. Especially those who may require a deeper connection, words of encouragement or more strict attention.

Bullying, Mental Health and Substance Use

A combination of chaos, uncertainty, and a changing reality can cause children and teens to feel powerless, anxious, lonely and control.

It’s important to keep a close eye on your children and understand the internet because so much of their new normal takes place in a virtual landscape.

What makes this age of cyberbullying especially high risk is that those being bullied may hesitate to reach out and parents or educators may not witness or be present for the bullying.

Bullying victims are six times more ly to be diagnosed with a serious illness, smoke regularly, or develop mental health issues. This can lead to substance use to self-medicate or forget about the problem. If you think your child is bullying or is the victim of cyberbullying, communication and intervention is critical.

  • Sources:Miller, Jenesse. “COVID-19-fueled anxiety and depression peaked in early April, then declined” Medical Xpress. June 5, 2020. Accessed July 16, 2020.L1ght. “Rising Levels of Hate Speech & Online Toxicity During This Time of Crisis.” April 14, 2020. Accessed July 16, 2020.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19.” July 1, 2020. Accessed July 16, 2020.Stomp Out Bullying. “Cyberbullying During COVID-19.” April 8, 2020. Accessed July 16, 2020.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes.

We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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COVID: More young people cyberbullied during lockdown

How Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Bullying?

For 16-year-old Abby Rayner, the bullying didn't stop when she came home at the end of the day.

«I got bullied in school really badly,» she told DW, «but social media was the worst bit — it's not you can escape it.» 

Until recently, Rayner had been in supervised care after a British court ruled she was at risk of self-harm if left alone.

It was the culmination of years of being bullied both online and offline.

Rayner is one of thousands of young people who have experienced cyberbullying in the past year.

As countries were forced into lockdown to curb the spread of SARS-CoV-2, schools closed and children's screen time soared. With classes taught online, and curfews established in some countries, kids were spending more and more time indoors.

A survey of more than 6,000 10-18-year-olds from June to August last year found that about 50% of children had experienced at least one kind of cyberbullying in their lifetime, according to a reportpublished in February by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC).

In the 11 European countries included in the report, 44% of children who had been cyberbullied before lockdown said it happened even more during lockdown. For 22% it happened less and 34% said it remained the same.

Among people who said they had cyberbullied others before, 39% said they did it more during lockdown.

A South African study published in the International Journal of Criminology and Sociology found that increased social media use during lockdown had led to many children and young people becoming victims of cyberbullying, including sexual comments on young women's photos, people insulting each other, and videos of school children fighting. The study highlighted the use of fake accounts to bully others.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has described bullying as a major public health problem. It can result in depression, anxiety and sometimes suicide. It can also lead to substance abuse, social withdrawal, missing school or dropping out, and can have implications later in life, according to the WHO.

Masa Popovac, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Buckingham in the UK, says she is concerned about kids being bullied in person when they return to school if they have been cyberbullied during lockdowns.

«There's often links between offline and online bullying,» Popovac told DW. «There's research, including my own, which shows that those who experience bullying in both online and offline contexts have more severe outcomes.»

Messages and calls to NGOs rise

During the pandemic, some non-government organizations (NGOs) have seen an increase in the number of calls and messages from young people seeking support because they were being bullied.

Zeichen Gegen Mobbing (or Signs against Bullying), a German NGO that helps people being bullied, told DW there had been an increase in the number of children asking them for support, said Marek Fink, the NGO's founder.

One 11-year-old girl contacted the NGO after being bullied by her classmates for half a year. She told Zeichen Gegen Mobbing that photos of her were posted in a WhatsApp group chat and her peers wrote comments : «Joke of the day,» «She looks s**t again,» «Nobody wants you anyway» and «Who's up for ignoring her?»

The idea of returning to school had made her feel sick, she told staff, and the bullying continued when she went back.

BulliesOut, a UK charity that provides an email mentoring service, received 400 requests in 2020, about 200 more than in 2019, mainly from young people and children.

Linda James, the founder of BulliesOut, said that young people who wrote to them reported being bullied more.

«They were self-harming, they couldn't see an end, they were worried about their futures, some of them were talking of suicide,» James said. «It's absolutely heartbreaking.»

James has lived the damaging consequences of being bullied herself — she developed an eating disorder after being bullied when she was younger. But the real motivation for starting a support platform came when her 10-year-old son, now in his late twenties, was bullied to the point that he was hospitalized.

«I knew how it made people feel because I knew how it made me feel, and then I saw what it did to my son,» James told DW.

Abby Rayner is one of the young people that BulliesOut has trained to become a youth ambassador. She has also published a book titled Bullycide, a term that describes instances of suicide where bullying is the leading cause.

In it, she shares how being bullied affected her life and advises others on what they can do if they are being bullied.

'I know people who aren't here anymore'

An obvious solution could be parents taking their child's phone away, but the fear of this happening can result in young people not telling anyone they are being bullied.

«You don't want that, because that's you being punished and you're the one being bullied,» Rayner said.

But, for the moment, a court has determined that she isn't allowed to use her smartphone.

Bullying on Instagram was the worst for Rayner. After being bullied in school for years, her mental health suffered. «I found it hard to put into words how I was feeling,» she said.

On Instagram, she would tap the heart icon on posts with quotes that resonated with how she felt, and eventually she started following the accounts that posted them — often pro self-harm and suicide accounts.

«These are really negative accounts,» Rayner told DW. Through the accounts, she was added to group chats where strangers would tell her to self-harm or kill herself.

«It is a massive thing over Instagram,» said Rayner. «I know people who aren't here anymore.»

A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in January 2016 found that people who posted self-harm content on Instagram used ambiguous hashtags to avoid people outside of their community finding the posts. The researchers identified more than 10 hashtags, of which only a third generated content advisory warnings from Instagram.

Pro-self harm communities on Instagram use ambiguous hashtags to hide their content

Dangerous Instagram communities

For a young person, these Instagram communities can give the impression that they love, support and care about you, said bullying researcher Popovac, but they're a major online risk in terms of content.

When Rayner scrolled through her Instagram feed she would see pictures of self-harm and videos of people overdosing.

«That's not something that's normal to see,» said Rayner, «none of that could have a positive impact on someone.»

«The more time you spend on that sort of content, the more normalized it becomes and your thinking shifts with that community, especially as you create bonds with other members,» Popovac said.

There are always people waiting to make negative comments on social media, said BulliesOut founder James.

She said her charity recommends children and young people keep their accounts private, only allow people they know well in the real world to follow them, and be careful about who they follow.

«Follow things that make you feel good, make you feel happy, make you feel positive,» James said.

Sharing the burden

Despite the risk of having their phone taken away, for someone who is being bullied, sharing what they are going through with someone they trust — whether that's an adult, friend, or someone else — can help them feel less alone, and disrupt the bullying cycle.

«Those who sit with these problems by themselves for extended periods of time can be more at risk of poorer mental health outcomes including suicidal ideation,» Popovac told DW.

Schools can also train young people to become mentors or «anti-bullying ambassadors» who can advise those being bullied.

At Munich International School, senior guidance counselor Christopher Floor is working on destigmatizing reaching out to others for help. Some kids had reported to him that they didn't want to bring others down with their feelings of sadness and loneliness.

«We're trying to combat that kind of thing and say: 'Would you feel burdened if a friend were to reach out to you and say 'I'm feeling kind of sad and lonely?,'» Floor told DW.

Rayner wants others who are being bullied to know that it doesn't have to define them.

«Being bullied doesn't necessarily have to affect your future,» said Rayner. «It's an experience that I wouldn't wish on anyone, but I've been bullied and I can change it and make something my life.»

If you need mental health support or someone to talk to, help is available through organizations Befrienders Worldwide.

  • The rapid spread of the coronavirus can really spoil your good mood, especially if a booked trip gets cancelled. Or if you have to go into quarantine.

    Is this what happened to you? The most important thing is how you approach this situation. If you get angry or upset, it will only make matters worse.

    Instead, so long as you're not sick, you should enjoy your time off and stay level-headed.

  • The first trees are budding, spring flowers are emerging from the ground — winter will soon be over. Use the time and get your garden in shape or take care of your balcony. And when the sun comes out, grab your sunglasses, listen to music and imagine yourself on a beach.

  • When otherwise do you find time to sit on your sofa and read those travel books that have been sitting on the shelf for ages? A holiday at home makes it possible! Learn about other countries — this will certainly help you plan your next post-coronavirus vacation.  

  • Even if you cannot travel yourself, why not join others on their travels! We recommend our travel show Check-In, where you can learn more about Germany. Or you can watch travel-related films Little Miss Sunshine or Wild.

  • You love spa holidays? Then relax in the bathtub at home! Perhaps you can find a bubble bath or a face mask hiding in your bathroom cupboard. Afterwards snuggle into your bathrobe and put your feet up.

  • The best thing about traveling is being able to spend time with family or friends. How often does that fall under the table in the hectic pace of everyday life? Why not play board games together and look at pictures from your past trips.

  • The supermarkets remain open, so why not try cooking something new? Look for recipes of specialties and have a go at cooking them. Or mix some cocktails to get you into a holiday mood.

  • The best thing about going on holiday is actually being able to be lazy, chill out and do nothing. Why not try that at home too? It will do you good!

    Elisabeth Yorck von Wartenburg


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