While parents are scurrying around trying to protect their kids from cyberbullying — on smartphones, iPads and the family computer — a new study suggests that harassment is right where we left it in the pre-Facebook days — in the lunchroom, in the classroom and on the bus.
"Claims by the media and researchers that cyberbullying has increased dramatically and is now a big school problem are largely exaggerated," said psychologist Dan Olweus of the University of Bergen, Norway, who conducted a thorough investigation of U.S. students.
He said there's little scientific evidence to show electronic-based abuse has increased over the past five to six years. Traditional in-your-face attacks occur far more frequently than those made online or by text message. Olweus discovered that online abuse usually follows an in-person incident, a finding he reported at an American Psychological Association conference in Orange County, Calif.
But even lawmakers have succumbed to the hype.
"When I was growing up, you had a tangible bully and a fight after school," New York state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, sponsor of a bill to criminalize cyberbullying, said at a press conference. "Now you have hordes of bullies who are terrorizing over the Internet or other forms of social media."
Olweus's study included 450,000 U.S. students in grades three through 12. About 18 percent of students said they had been verbally abused in person, while about 5 percent said they had been the target of an online attack. He found that most cyberbullies were just as likely to taunt their victims in-person.
Olweus believes that school prevention programs should focus on traditional bullying, but still include abuse sent by devices, which offers new ways to humiliate students.
"There are some forms of cyberbullying, such as having painful or embarrassing pictures or videos posted, which almost certainly have negative effects," he said. [Half of Smartphone Users Would Sneak Videos of People]
While the prevalence of online tormenters may not be as widespread media reports would have us believe, 48 states have passed cyberbullying laws and some, including New York, are looking to make them tougher. Most laws widen the legal definition of harassment to include electronic means. Some mandate school prevention programs, others grant schools authority to suspend or expel a student, while North Carolina makes it a crime.