Cyberbullying’s potential for harm is as limitless as the web itself.
Schools are in prime position to help stop cyberbullying of or by students. But not all school-based bullying programs have the same impact. Programs specifically designed to prevent or curb cyberbullying are better at reducing cyberbullying than general anti-bullying programs. That’s the conclusion of a comprehensive new study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice.
As a bonus benefit, the same study, a meta-analysis of existing research, yielded some evidence that anti-cyberbullying initiatives can reduce conventional bullying as well, in terms of both perpetration and victimization.
A key policy implication of these findings is that school leaders should address cyberbullying through programs specifically targeting cyberbullying, according to the research team.
The sweeping study covered 56 research reports from 90 independent studies. Investigators at the American Institutes for Research and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sought to close a research gap by synthesizing the findings of evaluations of a broad range of bullying interventions and programs to understand their effects.
The meta-analysis pulled together the findings of studies implementing both direct and indirect interventions against cyberbullying. Direct interventions were those specifically aimed at reducing cyberbullying perpetration and victimization. Indirect interventions included general violence prevention programs and physical aggression and bullying prevention programs. Indirect interventions were covered in the review only if they measured cyberbullying perpetration or victimization outcomes, according to a report resulting from the meta-analysis.
Background and Study Design
Cyberbullying is bullying in electronic form. The research team’s report said it did not impose its own definition on either cyberbullying or traditional bullying for the meta-analysis. Rather, it used the variety of definitions adopted in the intervention studies it analyzed. In other NIJ-backed research, however, cyberbullying has been characterized as bullying behaviors employing any of a variety of technologies, including online technology. Cyberbullying can refer to threats of physical harm or verbal or relational bullying. “Cyberbullying tactics can be similar to conventional bullying behaviors but also can involve contemporary behavior such as viral repetition or widespread sharing of messages.”  A common definition of conventional bullying is unwanted aggressive behavior involving a power imbalance that is repeated multiple times or is likely to be repeated. 
The impetus for the meta-analysis was the emergence of multiple interventions targeting cyberbullying, with varied results. The report stated that, prior to the meta-analysis, there had been no systematic review incorporating all available cyberbullying literature or the broader field of school violence studies, including unpublished literature.
To be eligible for inclusion in the meta-analysis, studies had to have tested the effects of interventions on students in grade K-12 settings. Eligible studies had to include both a treatment group receiving the intervention and a comparison group. Assignment to groups did not have to be random. The meta-analysis covered studies published from 1995 to 2018. The final database consisted of a total of 56 research reports from 90 independent studies.
The meta-analysis concentrated on four outcomes:
- Cyberbullying perpetration
- Cyberbullying victimization
- Traditional bullying perpetration
- Traditional bullying victimization
The researchers found that cyberbullying programs impacted all the bullying outcomes measured. Specifically, those programs were associated with significant reductions in cyberbullying perpetration and victimization as well as significant reductions in traditional bullying perpetration and victimization.
Not all anti-cyberbullying programs performed similarly well in addressing bullying.
The smallest effect for cyberbullying perpetration was found in the i-SAFE program, the report said, and the smallest effect for victimization was found in The Skills for Life program.
The research team concluded that the meta-analysis results point to a need for school-based programming that specifically addresses cyberbullying. That need encompasses broader implementation of existing cyberbullying programs, more evaluations of programs in place, and potential development of new programs that may be more effective.
About This Article
The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2017-CK-BX-0009, awarded to Development Services Group, Inc. This article is based on the grantee report “A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Decrease Cyberbullying Perpetration and Victimization.” Principal Investigator: Joshua R. Polanin, American Institutes of Research. Co-Principal Investigator: Dorothy L. Espelage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Research Coordinator/Project Director: Jennifer K. Grotpeter, Development Services Group, Inc. (April 2020).
[note 1] “Understanding Cyberbullying: Developing an Evidence-Based Definition,” August 31, 2016, NIJ.ojp.gov, 2013-IJ-CX-0051, based on the grant report “Electronic Harassment: Concept Map and Definition,” June 2016, Megan Moreno, https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/249933.pdf
[note 2] A Uniform Definition of Bullying, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education, states:
Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm. [Original use of bold in some text omitted.]
R. Matthew Gladden, et al., “Bullying Surveillance Among Youths: Uniform Definitions for Public Health and Recommended Data Elements, Version 1.0, (2014): 7, Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Education, https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/bullying-definitions-final-a.pdf.